Blog Posts

Rolling with the Punches

 

It was December of 2019. The ground was full of snow, my student home looked like a
holiday store exploded in it, and peculiar news was circulating after a mystery disease infected a
Wuhan, China local who ate a bat; we thought it was probably fake news…
The year was coming to a close, and so was the second last semester of my undergraduate
career. Of course, my mind was tossing and turning between excitement and denial. My four
years at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, shaped me into the person I have become. The
thought of starting a new journey at a new school had already crossed my mind but moving on so
soon felt as if I was cheating on the very place that I was lucky to call home. Not to mention that
my brain was fried after so many early mornings and late nights at the library, drowning myself
in coffee.

Taking a break from academics was a foreign concept that required a great deal of
consideration. I researched all the schools in Canada looking for the perfect program until one
day, my curiosity led me to the Biotechnology and Entrepreneurship master’s program webpage
at NYU. Needless to say, I fell in love with the program in an instant. I started imagining the
possibility of this new life; however, the idea did not go further. While my family was extremely
supportive of my goals, they were not quick to send me off to another country without first
applying to Canadian programs. With my lack of excitement towards what other schools had to
offer, I had decided to hold off on applying to a master’s program and take time away from
academics.

In a search for a new plan, I started talking with friends about travelling the following
year. We stayed up late talking about all the places we will get to tour as school became more
distant in my mind. At the age of 21, travelling with my best friends across the globe was a
pretty easy fix to overcoming my fear of taking a break from studying. In Thailand, tanning on
the beach, volunteering in elephant sanctuaries, hiking through wild forests – sounds good to me!
After months of debates and contemplations, everything was finally falling into place, and I
could not be happier. Until…

March 13th, 2020 – the beginning of the unpredictable.

My undergraduate university decided to shut down in preparation for remote learning. At
the time, I had decided to stay in my student home to celebrate what I thought was an extra
reading week with my friends. However, all the fun and games transposed into a red light in my
future plans. I was jobless, travelling was no longer a reliable option, and I had no idea what to
do at the end of my fourth year – which, might I add, was a month and a half away. The anxiety
slowly crept in. I started researching the virus more each day, wishing I could fight against it.
But how?

It was that moment when I realized I had to go back to school. I am a scientist – THIS is
the time for me to contribute to the world. Sadly, it took a global crisis and lack of plans to shake
me, but at that point, it was too late. I had not applied to a master’s program, and I lacked the
skills and qualifications for any job I found in the biotechnology field.

One afternoon, I received a call from my aunt, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute in Albany, New York. She had asked what my plans were for next year as a graduate,
and I was embarrassed when telling her that I had none. That call had changed everything. My
aunt informed me that her university accepted late applicants due to the effects of COVID-19
and urged me to inquire if NYU was doing the same. Within one week, I found myself back in
Toronto with my application to NYU well on its way, and one hell of a surprise for my parents,
who had no idea I even applied.

Fast forward two more weeks – the CDC had already declared the pandemic, the world
had gone virtual, social distancing was the new motto, and I was sitting on the floor of my
bedroom staring at an acceptance letter to NYU with my name on it. Before even having time to
process everything, my parents were already on the phone with my grandparents, running around
the house cheering for their “little scientist” with pride. With my family’s excitement and
support, including my great uncle, an NYU alumnus who praised the school, I was finally within
reach of my goals. All of a sudden, I possessed a beam of light in a world filled with so much
darkness. It was my first time feeling so proud of myself – I was ready to take on this new
chapter.

It is December again. The end to the longest, most challenging year. I am at home in
Toronto, surrounded by my incredible family, concluding my first semester as a graduate student
at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and studying in a program that feels as if it was made for
me. I am working as a research assistant at the Montclare Lab that not only is partaking in the
fight against COVID-19 but many other health issues that society has been battling for years. I
have the pleasure of learning from brilliant scientists every day who continue to shape me
beyond what I thought was possible. If I was told last December where I would be right now, I
would have laughed and denied it. I did not believe I would find success this quickly, nor did I
see myself in New York City. Through enduring the sadness and frustrations this year’s events
have brought, I learned to close my eyes and jump – accept the unknown – and fight against the
obstacles that face before me. My journey to graduate school and my time in it have taught me
that it is up to me to control my dreams. Putting up walls when things get tough might help at the
moment but taking action will change the outcome. All I have to do is roll with the punches.

-Neta Benor

Walking my own path

By Andrew Wang

As the saying goes, “If you feel like you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”. Throughout the years I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the company of some very smart people, not just in STEM but also diverse fields like journalism, law, politics. As much as I have tried to abide by that quote, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that doing so is also a constant source of stress. I couldn’t help comparing myself to those more well-spoken, more analytical, more put-together than me, who could seemingly summon knowledge on any topic on demand and held an unshakeable image of confidence. When surrounded by such people, it’s easy for me to feel like we’re not cut from the same cloth, or that I lacked aptitude.

This was the case for me and biomedical engineering. Despite being interested in biomedical science and engineering since a formative event in my childhood (a topic for another time!), while an undergrad at Berkeley I pursued a biochemistry degree because I had doubts that I could match up to the more rigorous requirements of the bioengineering major. While there were many interesting aspects of biochemistry, there were also classes that I didn’t really care for.

As a result, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and joined a robotics club called Pioneers in Engineering (PiE) on campus despite knowing almost nothing about mechanical or electrical engineering. PiE is mostly an engineering club, but it’s one with a social mission – to help local underserved high school students become interested in STEM through robotics mentorship with low barriers to entry.

Some high school students working with their mentor (a college student) to build a robot!

I was amazed at how much working in a team to finish a larger project with wide ranging impact is different from completing a class assignment. I learned how to ask for help; to my surprise I found so many willing teachers among my peers. While not immediately useful for club work, my biological background allowed for a mutual exchange in ideas with my friends and often resulted in lively discussion on several topics on the intersection of technology and biology, such as human-robot interaction. These experiences have helped me develop my own path without comparing myself to others. I gained the confidence to pursue my interests further, leading me to take several bioengineering classes and go to grad school for biomedical engineering.

-Andrew Wang

@acuteWangle

 

What I Want to be When I Grow Up

By Jacob Kronenberg

 

When I was little, I wanted to be an inventor. At the age of five, my grandmother told me that I descended from Thomas Edison. I did some investigating and it turns out that my grandmother’s grandfather was friends with Thomas Edison’s father, Samuel Edison. It’s a tenuous connection, but when you’re five, that’s more than enough. When I wasn’t building structures from Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, or Legos, I was sprawled out on my floor drawing solutions to the problems in my life with crayons. I remember dreaming up an automatic sorter to organize my messy room and a device to let me insert straws into Capri-Sun juice pouches without poking through the back side. You see, childhood’s most pressing problems. I was drawn to stories where the brilliant and solitary engineer devises thousand patents. If anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew what to tell them.

 

In school, I focused on science extracurriculars. I joined the Science Olympiad team in middle school because I loved the competition and the excitement of a new problem. Plus, it was the hot thing to do in middle school. Believe me. Science is cool. All of those competitions prepared me for the height of my middle school science career, the epic eighth grade sludge test. Our science teacher mixed up a sludge and we had to use our knowledge of chemistry to separate and identify components from the glumpy sludge. While many other kids were frustrated by this impossible task, I reveled in the scientific problem solving challenge.

 

Outside of school, I was trying to invent too. I’d go over to my best friend’s house and build things in his basement. We built a balsa wood bridge that was strong enough for me to stand on, a trebuchet that launched projectiles across the yard, and rubber-band powered propeller planes. This was all for fun and on our own time. We weren’t trying to solve any real problems, and there was no competition. We simply wanted to figure out as much as possible, and we worked together to do it.

 

When I started doing research in college, I realized that the spirit of science is much closer to working in my friend’s basement than to my fantasy of the inventor. Real advances in science don’t come from a single person working to solve all of the world’s problems. They come from teams of people, bringing thoughts from a variety of backgrounds, working together to learn as much as possible. I also learned that even famous inventors like Thomas Edison were hardly solitary geniuses. Edison had a team in his lab working collectively to make ideas reality. I’ve given up my dream of being an inventor in favor of a new one: being a scientist.

 

–Jacob Kronenberg

@jbkronenberg

 

Edited by Eliza Neidhart

 

A day in the life of a scientist….

By Alara Tuncer

 

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https://pl.pinterest.com/pin/36451078205754885/

Beep Beep Beep. I woke up punching my alarm from a vivid dream of me in the fifth-grade science fair—sheepishly presenting about tungsten lamps. This is when I should’ve known that I was going to become a scientist. What kind of 10-year-old tries to build a light bulb with tungsten filaments?

 

It’s 9:20 am. I rub my eyes and pull the curtain reluctantly—yet—firmly and the light begins to illuminate my room. Hoping the sun does a better job at waking me than my alarm, I yawn. I feel sleepier than usual. It’s unavoidable for me really, to go about my day without dividing the total amount of sleep I’ve got the previous night with a single sleep cycle (roughly one and a half hours) to evaluate if I’ve gotten enough sleep.

 

I walk into the bathroom and turn on the tap to wash my face. I hear the faucet dripping, while I’m keen on avoiding scientific explanations for this, when I turn to observe the water sneakily escaping between my fingers from the hand I’ve been holding out—I’m caught in the flow of my thoughts just like the water, liquidious. I wonder why? Still, I carry on about my day, walking around on my tippy-toes so that my roommate doesn’t wake up to my creaking footsteps. Still, I hear noises caused by the unwilling force I’m exerting on the floor that is defiantly causing a surge of vibrations to travel along the floor, sharply cutting through the silence of the air.

 

I brush my hair and my teeth. You would’ve thought that my mind wandering into nothingness—thoughtless and lacking the natural scientific inferences and inquiries that would normally be generated—would cherish the emptiness of my mind but instead, when I don’t make scientific assumptions about my surroundings everything I do feels a lot louder. While slipping into my clothes, the zipper of my pants and the button above gets tangled in my hand and I’m only more aware of the constant sounds of my surroundings. Regardless, the rest of my morning ritual becomes increasingly easier as I get into the rhythm of something I’ve been doing for days, and then I’m finally caught in my natural tendencies and am reminded that this is some sort of muscle memory. Aha! It’s like how I can play Amelie Comptine d’Un Autre Été on the piano even if I don’t have the notes in front of me or haven’t played in a while.

 

I’ve always been naturally curious about the world I live in—searching for meaning and reasoning behind everything—which is what made becoming a scientist like second nature to me. It makes sense to become something that’s always in search of answers if you’ve got a lot of questions to ask about the world. Additionally, the weird approximation questions discussed regularly among my parents over breakfast were a kind of a Sunday ritual. One week it was estimating “how many water molecules there were in a standard glass of water” and another week it was “the total surface area of all the leaves in the world” which aided my becoming. Inherently questioning the big and small questions in my life surrounding me I became increasingly curious about the world we live in.

 

We are only limited to living in a world we can truly understand. What makes us “superior” to any other species is consciousness and consciousness manifests itself by compiling knowledge and information about our surroundings in our minds. I don’t want to be defined by the limitations of my knowledge and understanding. The world might feel small when you’re travelling but there are still questions waiting to be asked and solutions waiting to be sought.

 

So, as I walk down from my apartment located on the 6th floor, when you know the scientific reasoning behind certain things, it’s tough to avoid thinking about the energy that is added to my body with gravity as I step every step down the stairs—which makes going down the stairs faster and easier unlike going up the stairs.

 

Luckily, when I put on my headphones and deafen the notoriously clinging scientific thoughts circulating my mind, the rest of the day slowly unfolds. I step onto Thompson street and walk down along the grey concrete until Washington Square Arch becomes visible before my eyes. I decide to grab my daily cup of coffee with an extra shot of espresso today, I’m craving the extra caffeine. The coffee is warm between my palms, energy transfer…I breathe and take a sip and start walking.

 

There’s a man holding a sign that reads “the virus is a hoax, take off your mask.” He is also screaming at the top of his lungs “the vaccine is made to track us.” “Lady” he calls me “take off your mask,” he says, spitting out his words spitefully as it seems. He follows up with “the government is controlled by evil Democrats and China, they’re going to track you if you get the vaccine!” to another stranger persistently arguing with him on the side. Aha! So, it’s not about science, it’s about politicizing science.

 

There are several problems with politicizing science. Firstly, the science presented by politicians is merely controlled by scientists and experts. Often, it’s the people who know how to talk and present themselves in a certain way that becomes politicians and consequently support those with similar characteristics. It’s like a cycle feeding itself based on presentational merits! When this is the case, it’s unlikely for scientists who’re busy dealing with long experiments and complex datasets to get out and advocate for science to the general public while being convincing. And when science and politics combine with the intrinsic fears of certain individuals—somehow—the scientific research that’s created to help guide us through our hard times creates fear in scientific public policy.

 

Trying to avoid the spit that is flying out of his mouth and COVID-19 simultaneously—obviously—I walk away from the increasingly intensified man and make my way to the subway to go to work. I think about how the rest of my day looks like with experiments when I’m disturbed by the sound the train makes as  it arrives—an amalgamation of surface tension and air resistance.

 

When I get out of the subway I find myself amidst New York’s first snow. I take a video and post it on my Instagram story like a typical millennial. It’s barely snowing, the flakes can be easily mistaken for rain by the camera lens. I’ve always liked snow, growing up in Poland, moving to California for college, and now having lived in New York just a few months—this is my first snow in awhile—I’ve missed it! Also, a weather condition with an intricately beautiful scientific cause involving pressure and condensation, but let’s not get into that now…

 

At work, once I set up E. coli to express the proteins we desire, I sit by my computer when I get an ad pop-up for one of those websites skeptical of science and climate change. Before I click, fearing that the algorithms on my computer will re-write me as a science skeptic for the future, I go incognito. I note down the feeling of uncertainty when I’m confronted with the possibilities of science and technology. I come across a blog that’s named “Watts Up With That?” —masked with scientifically misrepresented data—a blog dedicated to promoting climate change denial. Advertised as “the world’s most viewed site on global warming and climate change,” I read through the headlines and tabs of aggravating and false claims.

 

Just as I’m going down a rabbit hole of false claims with the contents of my readings getting increasingly political—Bing! I get an Instagram notification. A friend of mine working for Rainforest Foundation US has sent me a picture of New York under a pile of snow in 1948 in response to the Story I posted earlier. Below her message reads “it doesn’t snow like this anymore, climate change. ”

 

Later in the day, I leave work exasperated with my mind circulating with thoughts of climate change deniers and coronavirus disbelievers. Why are there so many deniers of climate change? What about anti-maskers? All the snow from earlier has melted and the lights coming from lampposts and buildings smear as reflections. The overwhelming set of colors and the alarming noises echo as the cars pass. That’s when I notice the light bulbs of the lampposts taking my thoughts back to my dream from the night before about tungsten lamps.

 

Clarity. I have a vague memory of myself when I was 10 years old, knocking on my dad’s office door with a too-bright-of-an-idea about what I should be doing for the upcoming science fair. I remember telling him “I want to build a TV.” Despite being a successful engineer himself he can’t contain his amusement and laughs. “How about you try starting with something simpler this time and we can build a TV another time?” his amusement still lighting up his face. I can almost imagine mini-me searching the room for something that would be simpler yet satisfying for the little Marie Curie inside of me. And all of a sudden, my light-bulb-of-an idea becomes building a light-bulb.

 

In the upcoming weeks, I studied everything there is to know about tungsten light bulbs. Although I can vaguely recall some parts of my juvenile research, what I remember extremely vividly is winning that science fair having constructed a tungsten light bulb. There was an essence of clarity I felt in that moment when the two sizzling tungsten filaments surging with electricity met with each other rejoicing in a faint light that I wouldn’t change for the world. Thinking back to this moment it is more clear what the science naysayers are missing. The knowing.

 

As a consequence of the increasing polarization and politicization, science has gained an increasingly bad reputation. Radical protestors, Twitter accounts, and blog posts casting doubt on vaccines, climate change, and even coronavirus all have something in common. The fear of uncertainty and confusion. But the only solution to this problem is knowing. And science is the gateway to knowing more.

 

We have to constantly investigate and rebuild on our previous findings to let go of this cloud of judgment and slowly achieve clarity. Although you might be aggravated by the constant surge of stimulus you are experiencing—the only way you can make sense of it all—is if you inquire and investigate the reasons behind what’s happening. The dripping faucet, the loud footsteps, the stairs, snow, etc.

 

An apple fell on Newton’s head, he didn’t get angry at the apple, he looked at the reason behind this event and called it “gravity.” Later came Einstein and defined this as a curvature of time and space caused by energy and mass.

 

Neural networks in the brain are created through rebuilding on previous neurons. Similarly, cities expand outwards from a point of origin or by connecting with other nearby cities. Science also develops gradually this way. Rebuilding on what we already know and collaborating with others about the realities of our world, we can find the answers to our big questions. But to do this, we have to advocate for science and make scientific education more accessible.

 

I challenge you to investigate the realities revealed by science surrounding you. You can see the evidence of simple science in your daily life when heating your food in the microwave or turning your light on at night. What makes these simple tasks possible is science used for technological advancement. But you can also be observant of the complexities of the science surrounding you. Its remarkable evidence can be hidden on your child’s face that is combining your and your spouse’s own facial features. It might be harder to visualize the evidence of microscopic molecules such as coronavirus or harder to fathom the glaciers that are melting in places you’ve never been to before. But in this case, you have to trust the experts because they are trying to clarify the realities that surround and shape you. Trust science and believe in science because everything you do has science at its core.

Starting a Postdoc in a Pandemic

By Stanley Chu, PhD

Academia is a nomadic path for many of us who are in the early stages of our career. You spend a few years in one place to get your bachelor’s degree, pick up your life and move to go to grad school, move again for your postdoc (and again for your second postdoc), and then move again for your first job. And each time you move you have to start over, from finding housing to finding new friends. Each time is arguably more difficult as the size of your cohort and colleagues (your natural friends) shrink and you become more specialized and unique in your field.

I began my Postdoc tenure at the Montclare Lab in October of 2019. I had moved to New York City from my home in Atlanta. In the first few months, I did my best to find and furnish an apartment, make friends and explore New York City all on a postdoc budget. I spent my first Christmas in New York City alone, deciding that I could not afford to fly back home for the holidays. Instead, I kept myself busy writing a review paper.

Stanley

In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the COVID-19 outbreak was a pandemic. On that same day, the Montclare Labs shutdown it’s operations and we began to work from home for the next four months. Since we are mainly a wet lab, we had trouble finding any productivity at home, not to mention that most of us are in tiny New York City apartments that don’t have suitable working conditions.

I, like so many others who are starting new chapters of their lives, have faced other challenges. Starting a postdoc during a pandemic has significantly delayed my training. While I was lucky enough to have attended my own graduation, I feel a sadness for those graduates who were unable to have an in-person graduation and for those newly minted PhDs who could not be hooded by their own advisors. I have sympathy for anybody, myself included, who moved to a new city, unable to make new friends who can help support each other through this pandemic.

Now with 2021 beginning, the COVID-19 vaccines are heralding a turning point in this pandemic. The vaccines represent much more than the promise of a “return to normal” life. The vaccines are a perfect example of what science really is. Decades of foundational research conducted by many scientists around the world allowed us to respond to a global challenge. I enter 2021 with a renewed optimism for science and humanity with the hopes that my own contributions to science will one day help the world through another crisis.