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Courtesy of Linda Nhon

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I Got Kicked Out Of a Lab, and Three Lessons I Derived from It


Editor’s note: This is adapted from a speech Linda made at Illuminate Tech on November 13, 2019. We would like to thank Maureen Rouhi, Communications Director of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences, along with Benjamin Ahn of the Georgia Tech Student Government Association for their help in making this story a reality.


I stepped foot onto Georgia Tech’s campus in the fall of 2014 with two letters in hand.

One was an acceptance letter from Tech and the other was a letter from my aunt or as I referred to her as Mieng, which is Khmer for aunt. I applied to six graduate programs and was rejected by all but one, as you can guess I was very grateful for Tech’s acceptance letter. Now the second letter was not so pleasant.

In it, Mieng wrote, “Dear Linda, GT was reluctant to accept you because of your low GRE results (Editor’s note: Graduate Record Examination Test scores are one of the application requirements of many graduate schools in the US) and GPA, but because Phou (Khmer for uncle) was an alumnus at the school, they extended a courtesy to him and asked him for further assessment of you. I am bringing this to your attention because I am not sure if you understand what your uncle has done for you.”

So here I was on Tech’s campus, with these two letters setting the stage for my upcoming Ph.D. adventure, and feelings of not belonging were unlocked. I rationalized continuing to go to Tech because an opportunity was still an opportunity, regardless of how or who helped me obtain it and that I should still take it.

As any graduate student understands, the first year is an exploratory year — we are multitasking with teaching classes, taking courses, and most importantly adjusting to a research group. In the chemistry department, we are fortunate to participate in a rotation program to get to know the research group and advisor before making that hefty commitment to staying on board for the next half-decade. At the same time, we are also competing with our peers for a slot in the research groups.

During that time period, after going through the rotation program, I decided I wanted to work in a biochemistry group. I thought the topic was super cool and that there was a lot of research opportunities in that field. I was not the only student in my class who thought so; in fact, there were two other students from my year whom I had to compete with to earn a spot.

After talking to the advisor, he decided to accept me “on one condition”. The condition was I would work in his group starting in the spring and through the summer. At the end of the summer, he would evaluate me and determine whether he would keep me. I didn’t think twice about the risk of possibly being rejected from the group, because I believed that if I worked hard enough that I would be able to stay.


Courtesy of Linda Nhon

As a reminder, this story is about a time I was kicked out of a group. So, what happened that summer?

Well, despite working long hours, taking extra time to study additional physical chemistry, and having anxiety to the point where I was afraid to ask for time off, at end of the summer, the advisor sat me down in his office one evening and broke the news. He said he recognized my hard work, but just did not think I would thrive in his group. He said that because I came in with a microbiology degree that I should look at the biology department rather than chemistry. He could not see me doing organic chemistry and that he simply did not have a project available, that was suited for my “abilities”.

For the first time, I truly felt like a failure. Let me tell you, feelings of failure are physical. I threw up my dinner that night, I could not stop crying, and my body would not stop trembling.

There I was in this eclectically decorated office, August 2015, one year after joining Tech, experiencing the raw emotions of rejection. My aunt was right, I did not belong at Tech. I was shattered. I truly thought hard work paid off, but if that’s the case, why did I fail? Why was it his words against mine? Do students not have a say on whether they belong? These questions rushed through my mind as I argued with him for two hours trying to secure my spot one last time. That night, I walked out of the office defeated, my face wet with tears and snot, and my stomach in tight knots.

For the first time, I truly felt like a failure. Let me tell you, feelings of failure are physical. I threw up my dinner that night, I could not stop crying, and my body would not stop trembling.


Linda Nhon with her mother, grandmother, and grandfather on her first birthday in September 1992 at the house her parents rented in St. Petersburg, Fla. In Southeast Asian culture, first-month and first-year birthdays are often big celebrations, hence the incense and bowls filled with sticky rice on the table. (Courtesy of Linda Nhon)

Why did that moment hurt so badly? For me, it was because I felt that I failed my family.

My mom and dad came to the US as refugees in 1990, and a little less than 10 months after coming to the US I was born. I grew up in a close-knit Cambodian and Vietnamese community who relied on each other for support. For example, daycare for me meant, playing with rice dough and mung bean balls with nhe (Khmer for an elderly aunt or grandma) as she made Khmer desserts to be sold at the local Asian markets while simultaneously keeping an eye on me. We lived in poverty and slowly moved our way out as my parents worked from busing tables at restaurants to peaking their careers as machine operators earning $11 an hour. My parents, like many refugee families, saw education as the answer to success in the US, but they did not know how to navigate that space. As a first-generation student, I saw it as my duty to navigate that space and relay the message to those following that path. From going through the gifted program in elementary and middle school to doing the International Baccalaureate program in high school to graduating from the University of Florida with my bachelor’s, I thought I was navigating this space rather smoothly.

Then 2015 hit.

I was at a crossroads of deciding whether to stay in the program or leave. More importantly, if I decided to stay, why would I want to take the risk of failing again and did I have enough mental strength to start over? To find the answer I had to look inward.

Which brings me to the first lesson I learned from this experience: being true to myself. Being a part of the Ph.D. program, the classes are often small and the gossip is often loud. Among the chatter (from women in chemistry meetings to casual conversations in teaching assistant labs) were rumors and speculations as to why I was kicked out of the group. Among the chatter were snickers of “I told you so”. Among the chatter were “she’s not going to make it past her second year”. While the noise circulated around the department and my confidence sunk to rock bottom, I had to find a way to keep my head afloat… so I turned to my comfort zone, the people who made me feel whole: close friends and family.

…daycare for me meant, playing with rice dough and mung bean balls with nhe as she made Khmer desserts to be sold at the local Asian markets while simultaneously keeping an eye on me.

I looked to them for inspiration. Being true to myself meant recognizing the things that I identify strongly with, and for me, it was my unique cultural background that gave me a sense of warmth and pride. I come from an American subculture that is filled with delicious food, amazing people, and beautiful stories of suffering and triumph. Growing up, while eating banh xeo (Vietnamese yellow crepes) or slurping nuom choc (Khmer for noodles) my nhe and ta (Khmer for grandma and grandpa) or ba va me (Vietnamese for mom and dad) would retell stories of their times in Cambodia and Vietnam during the ’70s and ’80s. My family survived the tragedies of war, genocide, and now in the US survived poverty. They are my heroes. I told myself that if my family had the mental strength to overcome these life-threatening hurdles, then surely, I will find the strength to overcome this academic obstacle.

This 2001 photo of the extended family was taken at the wedding of Linda Nhon's aunt, who stands in the middle wearing the green sarong, a traditional Khmer dress. In the family's culture, it is common to have roasted pig for large celebratory events such as weddings and birthdays. (Courtesy of Linda Nhon)

What does that strength look like? Well, that meant getting out of bed every morning (even if that meant telling google to blast Alicia Keys’ Superwoman), showing up to class, sending out emails to look for new advisors, and seeking advice from my allies — trusted friends, professors, and graduate coordinators. As a first-generation student, my parents’ guidance and teachings of hard work brought me to the point of learning how to succeed academically through the classroom, but their knowledge on how to navigate the professional social terrain was negligible- meaning they could not give me the advice I needed to be “savvy” and to negotiate with professors to say the things that needed to be heard to get the things I wanted. I was taught just to work hard, but now I needed to learn how to work hard and play smart.

So being true to myself meant understanding my roots, recognizing my limitations, and having the confidence to seek help. The second lesson I learned, was to broaden my horizon. This meant learning to step outside of my ecosystem when something was not working out.

During my first and second years of graduate school, my everyday environment consisted of my apartment and the chemistry department. This was obviously a very narrow ecosystem and I felt isolated. I didn’t feel that I had a community, as I could not find anyone that shared my background in the department.

At the time, the graduate program was not designed to help marginalized students; it only provided additional assistance to specific people of color. I learned this lesson during my first year. One day, I ran into the Director of Diversity of Affairs for my department and I asked him, “my classmate told me that there was a minority student lunch today just for the first years. I was wondering if I could join the discussion?”

He told me that I was not a minority.

I said, “But I’m one out of only two Asian American students in my year!”

He told me that based on the National Science Foundation definition of minority, I did not apply and unless that definition changes then I would not be allowed to participate in that lunch. I could not fault him for upholding the current policy, however, If I was to be true to myself, I also knew I needed to be a part of a community to feel grounded in Atlanta. So undeterred, I decided to be creative and combined my desire for belonging and my love for kickboxing! Therefore, I joined a Muay Thai Kickboxing gym, where I found a group of athletes who supported each other regardless of their background.

This gym allowed me to make friends outside of school. These friends were the best kinds because they were not in scholarly competition with me and accepted me for my personality and not my academic caliber. Most importantly, by stepping out of my ecosystem I found an environment to foster my confidence which needed major repairs. Fostering confidence meant finding a place where people are genuinely accepting and welcoming of me. Over time as I gained back my sense of belonging, I was finally ready to embark on Tech’s campus and broaden my horizon there.

Linda Nhon, right, poses with some of the new friends she made outside of school when she joined a kickboxing club. (Courtesy of Bangkok Boxing Fitness)

I eventually found a new research group to join. As I continued to progress through my research project in this group, I wanted to see what else Tech had to offer. After all, it is one of the top academic institutions in the country, I did not want to just be confined to the Chemistry department. I decided to take a course called “Social Justice and Design” at the School of Public Policy. This class was my first exposure to philosophical and social concepts surrounding technology, and I was hooked.

From there it was a snowball effect. I was super excited to learn more about the thought process behind policy development and was motivated to apply and was accepted into the Sam Nunn National Security Program, which is a special cohort made up of a diverse group of 10 graduate students from various departments within Tech coming together to tackle national security issues. I am grateful to this program because, after four years at Tech, I finally found a niche where I felt respected for my academic standing and found a safe and welcoming place to engage intellectually with peers. Broadening my horizon allowed me to rebuild my confidence and secure my sense of belonging.

Finally, the third lesson learned, which is a lesson that I only recently picked up, is that people are dynamic.

I learned that although my critics are the same people who can bring me down, they are also the same people with the potential to bring me up. Four years after being kicked out of the lab and reflecting on that day in 2015, I am grateful for what my former advisor did for me. If I was not forced to leave, I might have stayed in an environment that was not suited for me personally. Today, I am now a proud student working on designing and synthesizing new materials for solar fuel cell applications. This particular group has been the best environment for me because I am surrounded by supportive mentors and a patient advisor. Instead of looking at me for my past work my PI looked at me in terms of my future potential. He graciously took me in despite not having the credentials of a synthetic chemist but rather took me in because he believed in my ability to learn and grow. Now, he often tells his students, to “trust, but verify”, and this situation was no exception. Prior to interviewing me a third time, he spoke to my former advisor about his opinion of me and wrote it down on a purple post-it note.

I learned that although my critics are the same people who can bring me down, they are also the same people with the potential to bring me up.

At our final meeting, before the official handshake of joining his group, my future PI would read to me what was on that post-it. In it, it said, “Linda is ambitious, hardworking, and likable”. At the time, the words did not resonate with me, but today as I prepare for the last stretch of my Ph.D., my former advisor was right all along, I didn’t belong in his group, rather I belonged in a place better suited for me. And most importantly his observations of me were indeed accurate and I am thankful for his last advocacy on my behalf.

I leave you with this story in hopes that you too will find a sense of confidence and belonging, remember to be true to yourself, broaden your horizon, and most importantly be supportive of others as we are all dynamic and capable of immense growth!

Courtesy of Linda Nhon



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Linda Nhon

From St. Petersburg, Fla., Linda obtained her B.S. in Microbiology and Cell Science from the University of Florida and is now a Ph.D. in Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech. Her research focuses on the design, synthesis, and integration of organic light-harvesting chromophores applied towards solar fuel cells, specifically dye-sensitized photo electrosynthesis cells, which resulted in her being selected as a Sam Nunn Security Fellow. A proud Cambodian-Vietnamese American, Linda won Miss Asia Fest, a local beauty pageant in the Tampa Bay Area, where she represented the Khmer Youth Association of Florida.

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