Alum Advice During COVID-19: Phil Silva ’95

Dear LMU Science and Engineering students,

I imagine you feel very uncertain during this time–especially those of you who are graduating seniors forced to work online, not knowing whether you will have a graduation or what the job market will bring. This pandemic is unlike anything our generation has had to deal with but at the same time, those of us who have gone before you maybe can share some thoughts from similar times of uncertainty.

I remember the spring semester of my freshman year at LMU–1992. The week before finals, the Rodney King verdict came down in Los Angeles and riots started. The mood on campus was surreal. During evenings, there were places on campus where you could see fires and smoke rising from five miles away. In Rosecrans Hall, fellow students were going through everything from under-reactions (“Who cares? It doesn’t affect us”) to ridiculous over-reactions (“We’re getting on a plane tonight, sure you don’t want to join us before LA burns down?”)  There were protests on campus regarding the fate of finals week. In retrospect, many of the reactions seem so silly. It is cliche, but as the politicians say, we will get through this. You will get through this. And one day you will probably laugh at some of the absurd things you’ve been hearing around you while it is going on.

After graduating LMU, I did a PhD program in chemistry and then a fellowship. In 2001, I was up for my first real set of job interviews in science, looking for professor positions; I was so excited and I wanted to be at an institution like LMU. Then 9/11 happened. That fall as a recession set in half the colleges and universities I was going to interview at froze their positions. (Translation: the jobs went away because they weren’t sure they had money.) I had some interviews including a December one at an undergraduate institution in LA and everything seemed perfect. During the interview their Dean told me before leaving that I hit a home run and I would be hearing from them. Two weeks later, I got a thin envelope saying they were considering other people but thanking me for interviewing. I secured a position at a research focused university–not in California. You will face disappointments on the job search. I won’t claim that everything always works out. But what you make of the opportunities you do get will be up to you.

I started at that university in 2002 and if you are aware of the way universities work, you know that the tenure process takes ~6 years. Perhaps you have seen some of your professors go through this at LMU. I applied for tenure at that university in 2008. Most assistant professors also go back on the job market at that point as a backup in case they do not get tenure, so out the job applications went again. Then the “Great Recession” hit. Probably 80% of the positions disappeared. (again!) Whatever fear gripped me after 9/11, it was larger this time because I had a spouse and kids to help take care of. The job at the university was uncertain. Then one day, an interview came from a federal lab that had a position exactly in my expertise. I interviewed, they offered the position, and here I am still—in Kentucky. If you think that a life-long California boy who wanted to focus on teaching ever conceived I would be doing research in Kentucky, you would be mistaken. Life and the things it throws at you will surprise you. Don’t despair, roll with it.

This pandemic has seen the scientific process play out among the general public who do not normally get to see it. We’ve had a couple generations of Americans raised to believe that science is composed of an expert, like Mr. Spock, interpreting definitively for us what things mean. So many of the questions that the public is asking–“Will there be a vaccine?” “How long?” “Does this drug work?” “Will it come back in the fall?”–these are all questions for which the only honest scientific answer right now is “I don’t know”. Those of you in Seaver College at LMU know that there are many “I don’t know” periods along the scientific method. But this can be very unsettling to a general public not used to experiencing the process unfold in front of them. If you are an LMU Science and Engineering student, then you are attending a university that emphasizes learning and knowledge while encouraging service to the community and faith. One of the most important things you can do right now is help your family and friends who are not scientifically trained through this time of uncertainty. You may feel uncertain; it’s fine–we all do. But some of your neighbors are feeling worse. Help them through this–in preparation not panicking. Hang in there and stay safe; but also set the example for others.

-Phil Silva ’95