Before Weike Wang ’11 became a writer — her debut novel, Chemistry, won the 2018 PEN/Hemingway award — she was an undergraduate at Harvard, where she lived in Currier house, studied chemistry, prepared to apply to medical school, and spent a lot of time in Mallinckrodt Labs. Now, after a public health doctorate at Harvard and a simultaneous MFA at Boston University, she is working on her next novel and teaching creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and Barnard College.
I stumbled upon Wang’s work two years ago, when a friend recommended to me her short story “Omakase.” Shortly after, I read Chemistry in one sitting. The narrator is a grad student in synthetic organic chemistry at an unnamed Boston area university. She is ambivalent about her career and marriage to her boyfriend, who has proposed (and has a faculty job offer); she grapples with her immigrant upbringing, being a woman in a male-dominated field, her parents’ expectations. “It is a chicken and egg argument,” the narrator says. “Did I go into science because I liked it? Or because I was, in the beginning, very good at it and then began to like it?”
“Such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon,” the narrator says, referring to her father.
Wang and I chat over Zoom about career changes, creativity, chemistry classes, and leaving pre-med. This interview has been edited for clarity.
AMC: Over the past few months, my senior friends and I have been having a lot of conversations about why we want to do what we want to do. What were your 20s like?
WW: My 20s — now I’m 31, so my 20s were not that far — were pretty rocky. After undergrad I was in clinical research, and I did that for two years while I was applying to med school.
Then I had a change of heart with medicine, because I realized I was never a bedside care kind of individual. I’m not sure if I was ever that interested in research, I just don’t remember a summer where I wasn’t doing it, or learning science.
Now that I’m teaching English I often hear my students say, I want to study English because I’ve been reading my entire life and I guess I like to read. This was the kind of the same mentality when I went into epidemiology. I started a masters and then, I felt the pressure to finish. So I was in a doctorate for most of my 20s. I considered doing a postdoc, which I didn’t do — thank God.
The hardest thing about my 20s was the unknowing. And the intense pressure I felt to pick a path, because in the community that I grew up in, the path had to be straightforward, a to b or c. And saying you want to write, it’s almost like saying you want to go to the moon or become a cow.
There was a lot of figuring out what I really want to do in the trenches. I use that word because for some of my friends, their calling is medicine. They really like being in the trenches of medicine, and they enjoy the day-to-day grind. Some people enjoy the day-to-day grind of research. I enjoy the day-to-day grind of writing. Like writing, rewriting a novel 50 times.
AMC: What do you like about the day-to-day grind of writing?
WW: The problem solving — piecing together a really big puzzle. There are many ways to do it, but there’s usually one right way to do it, and that’s pretty enjoyable to figure out.
AMC: What do you mean by the right way to do it?
WW: I’ve torn down projects that my editor felt were okay, but after a while I just thought weren’t right. That’s something I was never willing to do in science. If I, or the group, needed to just get the paper out, I didn’t really care about the narrative or the how, which is what PIs care about — getting the science perfectly right or doing that perfect experiment. But with writing, I do care. And I think caring about something is incredibly important.
You have to care, above all else. Your editor, your agent, your PI, your postdoc, whoever — they shouldn’t care as much as you do, and when you find a field in which you are the person that cares the most, then that is your field.
AMC: When you were in grad school, you also did an MFA. How did you feel about switching tasks, like when you were doing two degrees at once?
WW: Two degrees at once was just school, and school, for me, is very straightforward. It was like undergrad — when you do a lot of different classes and activities at once, you end up compartmentalizing. I liken it to switching between Chinese and English. But what happens after school, launching your own thing, that’s actually the stressful part.
I can’t believe I’m going to quote my father, but he has often said, school is the easy part, work is much harder.
And I totally see it. Now I have this writing career that I’m still trying to launch, and also my teaching duties, and also being an adult.
AMC: On the subject of school, when you look back on your undergrad now, what are your main takeaways?
WW: I worked way too much. I had a pretty intense childhood and high school experience, and then college was also intense. I was pretty stubborn, so I just kept doing it.
Overall, I’m quite happy with my Harvard experience. Granted, that it was akin to being in a pressure cooker for four long years. Inevitably you get tired, or worn down. Some people are great at continuing that momentum, but after a while, someone with that kind of intensity becomes socially different, removed in a way. As an undergrad, that’s totally fine, as an adult, maybe not so much.
AMC: Do a lot of people you know have this type of intensity at 30?
WW: Yes, most of my peers/friends went into PhDs, MDs or MD/PhD programs, some went into consulting/finance, all 80-100 hour work weeks, and they like that, since if you’re not dying on the job, then what are you doing it for (the Harvard mentality I guess). But operating at that high intensity after a while does change people. I’m not saying that I’m not an intense person — I do have a pretty intense writing schedule — but the intensity in STEM is slightly different. There’s no, or sometimes no, emotional core. Even though most STEM people are quite emotional, they simply bury it. Still, spending a long time in an intense environment can truncate your personality, I’ve noticed, in the same way that going to Harvard, after a while, can truncate your personality.
I keep saying this and that about Harvard but truly I’m grateful for the opportunities the school gave me. Steep learning curve, opened my eyes, etc. And if I didn’t go there, I wouldn’t have taken the writing classes I took, met the people I did, or had the experiences. Harvard is one of those things where if I knew what I know now about the school, I’d probably be too scared to go. But now that I’m on the other side, I’m grateful to have survived it.
AMC: When you say that you worked a lot in undergrad, what did you spend your time working on?
WW: Mostly classes. I had a few extracurriculars. I should have done more, but it was mostly lab work. There was no work life balance.
AMC: Did you do organic research?
WW: Yeah, I did organometallics. I did systems bio one summer, and then organometallics the last three years. I’m not a big organic synthesis person, I didn’t love synthesis, so my research was mostly kinetics based, reaction mechanics.
AMC: What else did you do?
WW: I wrote for the Indy. I was part of a mentorship program called China Care volunteering. And then I supported my friends in clubs like Taiwanese Student Association or Chinese Student Association, and helped them out with posting posters and organizing events.
I know that if I hadn’t been premed, I would have done stuff that I enjoyed more. But as a premed, you need volunteering, shadowing, clinical research, you need exposure. Being premed is insane, the way you have to stack your resume to make yourself seem human, which is the opposite of what being a human is supposed to mean.
AMC: When did you start seriously questioning going to med school?
WW: I worked for a mildly/totally unhinged cardiologist for two years at Beth Israel. Mostly hung out around cardiologists and their research scientists, and during this period, I got even more disillusioned than I already was.
Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate my entire journey through science, having taken some years away from it. I love learning science. I love being able to go from basic principles to larger ones. What I really hated was all the other crap that came with it, how it could get petty and non-collaborative, yet wrapped under the ruse of objectivity and truth seeking.
I’m sure other people have good clinical research experiences, so maybe I was unlucky with mine. I did have great mentors and post-docs in all my other basic science labs, although most were also pretty stressed and unhappy. It kind of just turned me around. When choosing a forever path, you need to have role models. When I decided against premed, I had no role models in medicine. I do still have role models in science: My husband, who is a chemist, and some other friends who stuck it out with research. But when I was 23, 24, I was too hard on myself and sort of naive. I was going through a slow falling out of love with the scientific work itself, because there’s so much more than the work, and again my care for the work was waning. I felt that shouldn’t be happening. I shouldn't be waning in my love for clinical research at 23.
AMC: I feel like it’s very easy to be caught up in the grind. And when you’re in the middle of the grind, it’s hard to think about what’s outside of the grind.
WW: To be honest, medicine, if you get through the first 10 years, can be an easy career.
If you want to be a writer or go into the arts, you have to have a vision. You have to have material and something to say, contribute. It’s the same thing with going into independent research and starting your own lab.
In medicine, you don’t need to do any of that. Some of my friends are attendings or fellows now, and while the hours are long, especially with the pandemic, they clock in and clock out on a schedule. In a regular work week, once they’re out of the hospital, they’re out. They don’t need to think about it on their days off. If you’re an ER doctor, you take six shifts and then maybe you go to the Caribbeans. Unfortunately, and inevitably, I think about writing 24/7. Sometimes I wake up from nightmares of not being able to fix something on the page, and that’s when I know the novel isn’t going well. It’s perpetual anxiety and angst. Did I make a mistake choosing this? Was everyone around me right that science is what you do for a living and writing is just a hobby? Unhelpful questions of course, self fulfilling prophecies.
AMC: What do you think about the grind in terms of writing? Is it linear?
WW: No, it’s the most inefficient system I’ve ever dealt with. It’s hard. But overall, I think it’s worthwhile, because there are a lot of things I believe in that I want to get down. I might not get it right on the page every time, it might not be art every time, but that’s the goal. And I’m not pressuring myself to write the next great Asian American novel, but I would love to be able to write something that is reflective of my experience and of people who are important to me. My parents and I came here for opportunities that they didn’t have, and truthfully, writing is one of them, even if I know they believe that medicine or science is way more secure. So I do believe I’m honoring them in that way.
AMC: When you describe writing as art, what do you mean?
WW: Creating something with clarity and beauty. Taking a very small part of your experience and polishing in a way that’s beautiful and not cliche. Science as its best, can be art. The best experiments are really beautiful and simple. One of the things I learned from synthetic organic chemistry, like with mathematical proofs, was how graceful something could be on one page. And that’s kind of what I want to achieve with writing.
AMC: Out of curiosity, did you take Chem 30?
WW: Yeah, Brian Liau was actually a TF for it then, and he’s one of the people who makes chemistry look like one plus one. And I also took Chem 206.
AMC: Advanced organic synthesis.
WW: My entire lab pressured me to do it. They were like, Weike, you’re not going to be a chemist if you don’t take 206. Clearly, I didn’t become a chemist, but I still took 206.
AMC: I shopped that class. They call it something else now.
WW, laughing: That class was why I was in lab so much. I was trying to get everyone to help me with my last synthetic project because I couldn’t figure out how to make my molecule.
AMC: What were your favorite and least favorite classes? Anything in particular that stood out to you?
WW: I didn’t like the big life sciences classes. I really loved the smaller biology classes that were seminar based, and where they taught you how to dissect scientific papers.
I liked Chem 135: Experimental Synthetic Chemistry. We were there overnight a couple times, because once the compound was in the column, and it wouldn’t come out, you just have to stand there and wait until it does. But it was really fun, because I was with a small group of three other people and we all got along.
I loved my workshop classes. Two classes with Amy Hempel, one with Darcy Frey (audited this class while I was doing my doctorate), outstanding workshop classes if you can get into one, and where I learned so much of my craft. I took a seminar with Elaine Scarry about the Brontes; that class was phenomenal. I personally excelled in a class that was smaller because I’m naturally kind of shy. So if it’s a class of even 30 or 40 people, I just didn’t say anything. But if it was a class of 10 or 12, I found myself more able to voice my opinion and ask for help.
On the humanities side, there were so many great teachers. It was like a warm bath going into the Barker Center.
And then you go to Mallinckrodt, and then, you’re just like, I just want to cry.
AMC: Pfizer lecture hall. I spent a lot of time there.
AMC: The doors are right in the front. So when you walk in, everyone sees you.
WW: Everyone sees you, and if you’re late, you know…
WW: So much time spent in Pfizer, that place will always be burned in my memory.
— Staff writer Alicia M. Chen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciamchen.