GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship Spotlight: Elaine Tsui (GS, Chemistry)

Nov. 2, 2021

In the GradFUTURES Spotlight series, Princeton graduate students share in their own words about their experiences in one of the GradFUTURES Fellowship programs: the Community College Teaching Fellowship Program, the University Administrative Fellowship Program, or the GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship Program. 

Learn more about Elaine’s experience in our featured story.

Where and when did your Fellowship take place?

In the Spring of 2021, I was a GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellow in the Future of Land and Housing Program at New America.


I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry, where I am studying under the guidance of Rob Knowles. My research largely focuses on the development of new methods for the synthesis of small-molecule compounds, particularly methods that can leverage the energy from light to access otherwise challenging transformations. Prior to coming to Princeton, I was a double major in chemistry and English at Wesleyan University, and I spent two years in D.C. as a legal assistant, helping attorneys litigate patent disputes. I’ve always been fascinated with working and studying at the intersection of science and the humanities and learning skills that are paramount to both areas.   

What drew you to the GradFUTURES Fellowship and this particular Fellowship?

In the midst of the pandemic, I thought a lot about what I wanted to do after I graduated, especially as I was approaching the final year of my Ph.D. program. I came to the realization—and it was a difficult choice at first—that I didn’t want to pursue a career in academia or in the chemical industries. I felt a pull toward returning to law, but before I made that career decision, I wanted to gain more experience in other areas and further refine my communication and analytical writing skills. I thought the GradFUTURES Fellowship would be a perfect way for me to learn more about the inner-workings of a nonprofit, gain experience writing for non-chemists, and contribute work that can have a positive social impact. New America seemed like an organization that would allow me to achieve all these things, and I was interested in learning more about land and housing issues—an area that I hear a lot about but have never dug into substantively.

Can you share a bit about the Organization and the projects to which you contributed?

New America is a public policy think tank, and the Future and Land and Housing Program is just one part of the organization. FLH specifically aims to solve national and international land and housing rights challenges through research, writing, and shedding light on underreported issues. I worked on a project that explored the causes and consequences of the lack of financing for small dollar mortgages (mortgages under $100k). This issue is part of a larger conversation the country is having about the unavailability of affordable housing and how to realistically increase access to housing in an equitable way.

How did these experiences help you?

I learned so much from this fellowship experience. It was the first time since I started my Ph.D. that I got a chance to dive deep into a subject that is outside of the chemistry world. I had the opportunity to learn about a completely different topic and further develop my writing and communication skills. I was able to write a blog post for FLH, contribute to a report on this topic, and sit in on interviews with experts in this area of the housing market that we were investigating. I think learning to be fluent in wildly different areas of research is an incredibly important skill to have, and this fellowship allowed me to develop that flexibility.

Can you share some reflections on the mentorship component of the Fellowship?

Mentorship was such an important part of this Fellowship, and I am forever grateful for the amazing experience I had with my mentor, Sabiha Zainulbhai. I knew she was very busy, but she carved out time to meet with me every week and was always available. She included me in all the FLH meetings so that I could learn more about the other projects going on in FLH and get a sense of what think tank work is like. She also gave a lot of thorough comments on my written pieces, which really helped me learn to be more precise with the language I used.

Best advice for Graduate Students considering a Fellowship through GradFUTURES?

If you are interested and you have the time, do it! I remember seeing an ad for the GradFUTURES Fellowship during the beginning of the Spring semester, and I was immediately interested. I spent a week debating whether I should apply, not knowing if I could do it or if I had the time. With my advisor’s support, I finally sent in my application. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. My advice for graduate students is that it’s never too early to proactively explore other career options or to develop a new set of skills. Even for students who want to pursue academia, it’s exciting to try something you haven’t done before. You never know what you’ll learn or what new perspective you’ll gain.


Interested in a GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship? Apply Here!


Read more GradFUTURES Fellowship Spotlights here!