log 105: grad school.
I am starting this post as I sit on my hotel bed in New York City (it’s mid-January), having finished a long day of interviewing with more thoughts running through my head than ever. I can’t begin to guess how long this rambling may go on, but I assume that this reflection of (essentially) a culmination of my research career could be extensive.
I’ve been doing science for a considerable amount of time. I was one of the lucky few who had the chance to start doing research when I was 16, and I remember meeting my first grad student in that lab and thinking “He’s the coolest person I have ever met.” Brilliant, hard-working, down-to-earth, kind, and inspiring in all kinds of ways. He gave me this amazing first impression to science (along with my mentors of course), but to this day, I have yet to meet anyone like him (looking at you, Arun!). His work ethic and personality proved to me with that with the same humility and dedication that my parents had in their perhaps less “glorious” line of work, with a little luck, you could really become a great scientist.
I later jumped from working on CRISPR for iPSCs in cardiovascular medicine to dCas9. I didn’t expect to find myself so dedicated to the work here, but it excited me in ways that constantly reminded me of why I became interested in science in the first place. I would be lying if I said there weren’t times when I felt like my research life was in flames, but I guess that’s what happens when you try to publish. I remember in those moments I would spend the long train rides from work to home wondering if I had gone wrong with my decision to pursue science, if I had wasted my only Bachelor’s degree on a misdirected passion. However, it was hard to imagine myself doing anything else. Nothing else could feel as rewarding as academic research, and I admit that it took a while before I convinced myself of that again. But with each day, I found myself in love with it again. I eventually jumped over into endocrinology because I wanted to return to working a biological system, and somehow this work in obesity inspired my choice to intern and work on an obesity/neuroscience project in Lübeck. And so by the end of five summers, I had work in stem cells, done a little CRISPR cloning, spent too many hours on confocal microscopy, learned about RNA-sequencing, and played with a lot of pig brains. I had spent probably on the order of +2,500 hours doing lab work.
I knew since I was 16 that I wanted to get a PhD. And since that day forward, it has been one of the most confident factors of my identity. However, I’m still not confident about how much this decision was influenced by a ‘grad student’ being the first real occupation that I just happened to extremely admire. But somewhere along the way, I always found a way to get funding to do the things I loved and friends/family who were supportive of it all. I think there was only one or two small periods where I thought about pursuing something else, but whenever I got to talk about it with people at school I found myself exhilarated by it again.
As you can tell from my research history, I struggled to find a one true love. It was always hard for me when EVERYTHING in science excited me. When I was figuring out what to do after dCas9, I sat down with a handful of professors from cancer biology to genetics to bioengineering, desperately finding something that was singly more exciting than the rest. During these conversations, I realized that I could have imagined myself mutually invested any all of the projects mentioned, and thus I decided that it was a greater priority for me to find a place where I could dictate my own work, despite essentially starting anew.
This was probably one of the biggest questions I had during my undergrad: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to specialize in, at least not until I starting dabbling in neuro work very lightly. I’ve learned to package this thought process fairly compactly for these graduate interviews, because I noticed across the board (having spoken to >11 faculty individually) the questions I get about my background are pretty consistent, perhaps making me a bit of an unorthodox candidate from others:
- How does this CRISPR thing work?
- Why did you jump around so much?
- Why neuroscience (of all the things you’ve done)?
Somewhere in the course of these conversations, I found myself doubting again. Sometimes, it was the feeling that the faculty did not respect my line of work or seem to believe my drive for all things science. Other times, it was a sour conversation with other applicants and grad students, during which I wondered if I found myself in a field filled with students and their accompanying superiority complexes. Maybe something about being able to say “I’m a neuroscientist” will do that.
But these travels have not all been doubt-inducing. They were also comforting and inspiring in many ways. Some things I’ve learned about faculty:
- They sympathized with the desire to explore and figure out personal preferences more than I realized. Of course, there were people who were born and bred scientists and knew from the beginning that they were going to be in this one field of neuroscience since conception. However, at least half of the faculty I met did not start out there and only later found their way to neuroscience.
- They are also very human. I was having dinner at a Harvard faculty’s house and one of the professors told a story about spending an obscene amount of time to find the perfect cell to clamp, only to realize his symmetric pick was an air bubble. Another told me about how his wife was a social worker, and he realized that, as a theorist, a bad day in front of the computer does not compare to a bad day for her.
I remember looking forward to these interview weekends as some kind of fruitful award for all the work I’ve done all these years, but it’s not (although the free booze and expensive dinners can be nice). It’s a lot of work to be honest. It’s stretched my socializing abilities to new levels. More than ever, I felt a giant need to reason and defend my research choices. I learned a lot about the people in academia, while discovering things I truly prioritized in life. For example, I always thought of myself as the more travel/adventurous type, ready to live in a new place and all, but really.. nothing compares to the west coast.
On a different note, I have doubted myself at every stage of the road. I remember feeling discouraged when I reached out to PIs for the first time and not getting any responses. But now the same PI that was probably too busy to read my cold email now is one of my strongest supporters. I would sit on long train rides home during the summer, feeling as if everything was falling apart, only to find out a year later that what I thought was failing turned out into something really phenomenal (and was getting published). I listened to my engineering peers describe how luxurious and comfortable their industry jobs, and I wondered if I was not taking full advantage of my Stanford degree if I wasn’t earning a 6-figure salary. But I always managed to find funding that allowed me to live perfectly satisfied life and even travel around Europe. During the grad application process, the doubt amplified. I had doubts about getting interviews, winning the favor of individuals way out of my background fields, and getting into any school. Despite having the amazing family / friend support system I have and all the incredible mentorship I had along the way, I still doubted myself.
It’s been such a long road, and I have so many people to thank for continually inspiring me to be better. From mentors, friends, significant others (past and especially present), I have felt motivated to be a better scientist, teacher, and all-around person.
Fast forward to less than a month later, I am pretty certain about where I’ll be in the fall. It’s weird to think that a month ago, I was fighting my inclination to envision myself at anyone place, and now I find myself needing to reorient myself. Throughout the experience, I realized how much doubt and hesitancy I had and the surprising number of faculty who were bewildered by my lack of self-confidence. But now I can say that I am more confident than ever, and it feel so good!! I have no doubt that it’ll be a hard couple of years ahead, but it’s an exciting time.
CURRENT JAM: Nao, 6LACK – If You Ever