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The Life of a Graduate Student

Updated on December 15, 2014

Scientific Research and the Life Outside of Lab

In February 2011, I earned my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology. This degree was the culmination of 4 years of bench research, 1 year of classwork/rotations, 4 years of college, 12 years of grade school, and 3 years of pre-school. At the age of 27, I find myself without the official label of "student" for the first time in 24 years, and I am searching for a new way to define myself. I know that I will never stop learning, even if I am not officially a student enrolled in a University.

I am in the middle of a life transition, and I want to explore how I got here so I can begin to figure out who I want to become. Although this reflection is about my scientific education and experiences, it is written with non-scientist readers in mind. In this lens, I aim to provide a window into the world of my life as a science graduate student; the work, the play and why I choose this path. Hopefully after reading what I have to say, scientific research will appear less sterile* and more relatable.

*I'm using sterile as desolate/uninspired, not aseptic. Aseptic techniques were followed through my research!

Why did I want to become a Scientist?

"I have been surrounded by science for my whole life; I played with chemistry modeling kits and making drawings with ChemDraw as a child, but my love for the sciences is not based on the exposure I had as a child. I am an eager and enthusiastic student with many academic interests, but with a particular passion for chemistry and molecular biology. I want to pursue graduate work in science because I want to spend my life learning new things about myself and the world around me. Research and application of theories and concepts learned in the classroom to address real questions is exhilarating to me, not to mention that my learning has grown exponentially through my research experiences. I cannot think of anything else I would rather do than science-no other field would keep me as intrigued and engaged as I enter the adult world." -Excerpt from my Graduate School Application

When I started college I knew that I wanted to study either math, Spanish or biology. The summer after my freshman year I did a research internship, and then there was no turning back!

Mechanistic Enzymology

Understanding how proteins catalyze chemical reactions.

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It would be impossible for me to reflect on graduate school without first explaining what I studied. I consider myself a mechanistic enzymologist, meaning that I study the way that enzymes (a type of protein) form and break chemical bonds. Specifically, I study enzymes that make unique chemical bonds that are part of natural product biosynthetic pathways.

So what does this mean? Natural products are compounds that are formed by living organisms. Many drugs (especially antibiotics) on the market are based off of natural products. These compounds are formed by enzymes, with a different enzyme involved with different transformations from starting materials to final product. Some of the compounds I study are called secondary metabolites because the compounds are not essential for the survival of the organism. Natural product chemistry is interesting for many fields, identifying new natural products (especially those that could have some medical relevance), total synthesis of these compounds, and studying how the organism produces the natural product.

The simplest answer? I study how microbes make antibiotics and other antimicrobial compounds.

Natural Product

A chemical compound naturally produced by a living organism.


I have had the pleasure of teaching thee different courses during my graduate career; Genetics, Biochemistry and Introduction to Chemistry/Biology for freshman. I love being a teaching fellow, grading problem sets (yes I love grading!), and leading section discussions. I especially love creating questions for problem sets and exams, it was amazing to see how students responded to questions I wrote.

Teaching is absolutely something I hope will remain part of my life. Unfortunately some medical issues make it impossible for me to teach at the moment, but I'm hoping that if my stamina improves I'll be able to teach full time. (I feel it would be irresponsible for me to teach young students when my brain isn't functioning properly because I would only confuse them)

Chemical Mechanism

The step by step sequence of elementary reactions by which overall chemical change occurs.

I'm at a Medical School... but not for an md! - but I'm not going to be a Doctor!

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My graduate program is located on a medical school campus. Whenever I mention my association with this medical school, people congratulate me on "getting into med school" or ask me about my specialty, leading me to clarify that I'm in a graduate, not MD, program.

So why don't I want to be a medical doctor? The first reason is that I am squeamish. In high school, I worked as a Spanish interpreter in an OB/GYN clinic at the local hospital. Let's just say that I did not enjoy being in the examining room trying to tell the patient to relax and stay calm when I saw bloody swabs. I never really had a strong desire to be a doctor, but working in the hospital was enough at the hospital squashed any remaining desire to be a doctor. (I'll save the story of being an medical interpreter with limited Spanish vocabulary and medical knowledge for another time.)

The second reason why I don't want to be a medical doctor is that I don't want the responsibility for a human life. In my research the mistakes I make cost time and money, they don't impact someone's health. I have a lot of interest in medicine, but I would prefer to remain behind the scenes rather than deal directly with patients. I have a huge amount of respect for people who pursue a MD.

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Writing the Dissertation

When you have enough research that the powers that be decide you are ready to graduate, you have to write a dissertation and prepare for a defense. In the sciences, writing the dissertation is a less daunting task than it may seem. Over the course of your graduate career, you write and submit articles to academic journals. These articles become the central chapters of the dissertation. When I officially started writing my dissertation, I already had 2.5/4 chapters complete. Much more time was spent getting the formatting right than doing actual writing.

The dissertation defense varies from institution and even department within the institution. My defense seminar was open to the public, followed by a private examination. (Keith's defense and exam will both be public.) In my program, you submit the dissertation to the examiners 2 weeks before the defense, and they have to give at least 72 hours notice if they would fail me. Most people who stand up at their defense seminars will pass. Institutions do not want to embarrass us in front of friends and family, so they would cancel the seminar to address major concerns rather than fail you. I was not worried about passing, but I was more worried about how pleasant an experience the exam would be. The examiners can request that you do additional experiments and drastic changes to the dissertation (a conditional pass), but I'm happy to say that they only had minor typos for me to fix!!

The Eternal Student

I may have earned my PhD, but I will never stop learning. (A lot of this learning is happening here on Squidoo!) I don't think there is any answer that could quench my curiosity about how the world works. Whatever I do in the future, whether it is research, teaching or writing, I will continue on my quest for knowledge.

What else would you like to know about the life of a science graduate student?

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    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 

      7 years ago from California

      I am awe of your education and your perseverance. I hope there are great things waiting for you in your field in the future.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I am an alternative medical practitioner.. which is similar and very scientific as well.. I am doing my masters now (but not in science).. CONGrATS!!!!!! :)

    • Vikk Simmons profile image

      'Vikk Simmons 

      7 years ago from Houston

      Terrific job and so interesting to hear about your life.

    • spritequeen lm profile image

      spritequeen lm 

      7 years ago

      As a recipient of medical/scientific expertise, I truly appreciate the efforts of anyone who is willing to learn those kinds of things to keep ME going. Kudos to you for your awesome efforts! Angel Blessed!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Such an informative lens - and congratulations on your PhD :)

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      7 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      What a wonderful field that you studied in. Good luck.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      One of my brothers is a senior scientist for a well known company...I don't have a scientific mind, I don't think...but learned a lot about how he thinks from you:-)

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 

      7 years ago from So Cal

      First of all, spelling all those words would be a challenge. This is really interesting and I do understand the curiosity in wondering how these enzymes work. I think it's interesting too. I did have to laugh. I have preconceived notions about scientific people so the last thing I expected was designing science inspired knitting patterns but must admit, they are cool. Great lens.

    • oztoo lm profile image

      oztoo lm 

      7 years ago

      I'm afraid I'd never make a scientist. I have a hard enough time trying to figure out what went wrong with the cake I just I did enjoy reading about your work though. Thanks for sharing the world of a science grad student.

    • tiff0315 profile image


      7 years ago

      Props to you! I love that people have different interests and have the ability to comprehend scientific things. Glad to know more about you ;)

    • AbsoluteJeanius1 profile image


      7 years ago

      I really enjoyed reading about your work. Thank you!

    • jmsp206 profile image

      Julia M S Pearce 

      7 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      A lot of hard work.It is a good this that you knit, it is very therapeutic.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      7 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      I really enjoyed reading the life of a (knitting) science graduate student.

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      7 years ago

      Just want to say that you are one smart girl! I like your knitting, too!


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