Making molecular movies
“Speaking to family members, they’d tell me I had an accent and I didn’t fit into my own birth country’s social circle so I identify most closely with being a third culture kid,” says PhD student Sovanndara (Dara) Hok, who was born and raised in Cambodia but attended an international school from a young age. “When I first moved to America, the biggest cultural shock was being forced to be the unofficial representative of my country even though I never really identified with my Cambodian heritage.”
However, one area where Hok definitely feels more Cambodian than American is when it relates to individualism. He explained that individualism is contrary to the way that he was taught to look at the world. “My whole story goes back to my parents. I never perceived any success that I may have achieved as purely mine. My parents went through a genocide, had nothing and barely any money, but they built a business. They saved up every penny and worked tirelessly so they could send their kids to America. I can’t take credit for that – my accomplishments are a direct result of my parents’ sacrifices.”
Hok did end up coming to the U.S. for his education, achieving joint degrees in chemistry and physics at Chapman University in 2016 before joining Stanford Earth for his PhD in 2017. Hok works in the Extreme Environments Lab, where he studies different materials under extreme conditions, like high pressure and high temperature. He uses powerful lasers to send shockwaves at materials like iron, which is believed to be a main component of the Earth’s core.
“One of the things that excited me about the work I do is the groundbreaking technology we use. One of the important steps in developing motion pictures, ‘The Horse in Motion,’ was actually commissioned by Leland Stanford. A few hundred years later and we’re making similarly cutting-edge movies, except on the molecular level.” These “molecular movies” have a wide application. By looking at the strengths of materials, the work done in the Extreme Environments Lab can be applied to developing better protective gear, while understanding the Earth’s interior can be applied to understanding gas giants, like Saturn or Jupiter.