December 2nd, 2019

By Jay Kang

I think one of the major obstacles I face while pursuing an education in STEM is self-doubt, especially as an undergraduate working in the Montclare Lab and surrounded by many impressive colleagues. The people I work with have either achieved a PhD or plan to pursue a PhD in the future, and seeing them work hard in the lab is very inspiring, but also very daunting because it makes me think about what I will do after I graduate.

As a BS/MS student, I never considered pursuing a PhD, and instead just figured I would try to achieve a masters in biotechnology. Yet, what will I do after that? This thought haunts me every day because even though I think there is something greater I can do, I immediately shut that idea down and deem it irrational. Consequently, I feel stagnant. I can choose to follow one path, but then I ask myself, “Is this the right choice?”. This anxiety coupled with self-doubt just makes it harder for me to think there is something I can do.

[Above: Jay Kang mixing a protein sample in the concentration filter tube]

I do not want to be afraid of working hard in STEM anymore. I do not have any particular role models that inspired me to enter the STEM field, but I am inspired by few of my undergraduate colleagues, particularly the zealous ones, to be passionate about what I am studying today. When I asked a colleague why she would take several hard courses while participating in an extracurricular research team, she simply replied “because I enjoy the subject and the work”. I would have been scared to be in her position because it just seemed impossible. This precautionary attitude is also reflected when I hear about an interesting course, but when I refer to colleagues who warn me that the course is incredibly difficult and the professor is terrible, I do not consider taking the class and hold myself back once again.

I remember getting rejected when I first applied to Montclare lab. I tried to rationalize it to myself that I was still too young and inexperienced as a sophomore, but I was still very much disappointed in myself. The following year, I applied again for Summer of 2019 and I tried to mentally prepare myself to being rejected so it would hurt less, while hoping to be accepted. Within a  week, I was informed that I was accepted into working in the lab for the summer. I was both excited, and nervous

I am tired of having this mindset of self-doubt that always stops me from taking chances, but I cannot help it. What if things do not go as I hoped? What if I will regret taking this course? What if I am not capable enough to handle the work in the lab? What if I am not good enough to even think of pursuing a PhD?  If not, then what else can I do?! Although I do not want to exude arrogance, I do want to be more confident in myself. I always tried to take the safe or easy route, but I know I am just setting myself to be only stagnant in life. If I was good enough to be accepted by this lab, then perhaps I should have more faith in myself.

I do not want to always give up on myself anymore.  I want to become more passionate about working in STEM and not be afraid to work hard in it. Earning a PhD is not impossible, but it is definitely not a walk in the park. That is why I hope to think of an idea I am passionate about, and further my research on it. In fact, the work I currently enjoy doing in the Montclare Lab is utilizing M15 E. coli cells to create our self-engineered protein. The sequential work put into transforming, plating, and growing these cells feels much similar to gardening. For instance, after we transform our cells and plate them onto Tryptic Soy Agar plates to incubate overnight, I get excited to come in the next day to see proper cell growth. Considerable effort and time goes into growing these cells and purifying the protein, but it is worth it when we finally collect our protein and get to test its small molecule binding ability because our research focuses on creating a protein that can function as an efficient drug-delivery tool.

I have never imagined myself formally doing research that seeks to only advance science.  The reason is that I am more passionate about research that can have a positive impact on human health, environment, etc.  When I applied to the summer research program, I was not interested in most of the projects, except those of the Montclare Lab.  Reading the title “Self-Assembling Protein Biomaterials for Ocular Drug Delivery” excited me because I only read about proteins in the human body, but I never imagined actually manipulating them for an intended purpose! This research is the reason I was interested in applying to this lab because using biomacromolecules, rather than machines as an alternative form of medical treatment, was mind blowing to me. Through this opportunity, I wanted to take that first step into undergraduate research and just actually see what I am capable of doing, instead of always doubting myself. Rather than holding myself back from self-doubt, I believe it is more pragmatic to just build yourself up from the beginning.

- Let’s connect on Twitter @hjaykang