The Life of a Graduate Student
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!
Understanding how proteins catalyze chemical reactions.
Are you a curious person?
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.
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)
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!
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.
Did you ever want to be a doctor?
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.
Learn more about some of the terms used in this article
"Enzymes are proteins that catalyze (i.e., increase or decrease the rates of) chemical reactions"
- Enzyme Mechanism
"By providing an alternative reaction route and by stabilizing intermediates the enzyme reduces the energy required to reach the highest energy transition state of the reaction."
- Reaction Mechanism
"In chemistry, a reaction mechanism is the step by step sequence of elementary reactions by which overall chemical change occurs."
- Natural Product
"A natural product is a chemical compound or substance produced by a living organism - found in nature that usually has a pharmacological or biological activity for use in pharmaceutical drug discovery and drug design."
"Biochemistry, sometimes called biological chemistry, is the study of chemical processes in living organisms, including, but not limited to, living matter."
- PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
"Doctor of Philosophy, usually abbreviated as PhD, Ph.D., DPhil or D.Phil. is a postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities. "
"A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for an observable phenomenon. "