Blog Posts

My Unexpected Venture into Science by Julia Monkovic

My Unexpected Venture into Science
By: Julia Monkovic

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Every time I visited my grandparents’ house as a kid, I was always a little scared to go into my grandpa’s office because of a giant picture of what I thought was a bug hanging on the wall. Closely followed by my dad, I grew up thinking my grandpa was the smartest person in the world. What I didn’t know about them was their common passion for STEM – both of them are chemists. Years later, this childhood vision still holds true. As it turns out, that big picture of a bug is actually the structure of an organic molecule my grandpa synthesized that’s now being used as a nausea treatment for chemotherapy patients. Starting with him and passing through my dad, science has crawled through my family and somehow made its way to me – something I never would’ve guessed just a couple of years ago.

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Despite the amount of science present in my family, as I grew older I became more and more resistant toward the field. In high school, my interests circled around reading and playing the flute – I didn’t enjoy the science classes I took, finding them boring, intimidating, and not for me. So in my senior year of high school when it came time to deciding what to study in college, my friends were so shocked I chose to go into engineering they thought I was pranking them. I laughed along with them, while at the same time being driven by fear, the unknown, and a spark of passion to create change.

That spark started not by any positive inspiration or revelation, but through a moment of frustration and despair as I watched a seemingly incurable disease take over my brother’s life. One evening while my family had another argument over which medicine or doctor to try next, I wanted to take matters into my own hands and went to Google to search for other forms of treatment available to my brother. Despite the great successes and advances in the medical field of recent decades, through this experience I felt incredibly frustrated with it at the same time. Many confusing articles later, I stumbled across biomedical engineering. At that time my feelings of anger and defeat turned into ones of pressing eagerness, as I began to believe that pursuing this field was how I could make a change in the lives of my brother and those like him.

Through this experience science began to mean more to me than just a sector of subjects in school. Rather, it’s a way of thinking that we have the potential to help heal and improve the lives of people around the world. It can give us optimism and hope in times of despair and allow us to come together to work collaboratively towards our goals, as science is a team sport rather than an individual one. Science isn’t about memorizing formulas or reaction mechanisms: it’s about asking your own questions, developing your own theories, and eventually finding your own answers to the unknown. Growing up I always felt like science “wasn’t for me,” but over time I’ve realized that science encompasses everything we do, and therefore it’s naturally a part of me.

This transition into STEM was anything but easy. Because of my lack of a science background I was worried people wouldn’t take me seriously. I was hesitant to ask questions in class for fear of sounding stupid and still struggle a lot with confidence. I gain inspiration and confidence to persist through the encouragement of my family and friends, along with the great opportunity to work in a lab that designs ways to help fight diseases like my brother’s.

As I said earlier, science is not something that can be done alone: I’m thankful for my dad and granddad for giving me a platform to grow from, and for my mentors and professors for taking a chance on me and seeing the potential in me before I saw it in myself. I now know that in order to go into the sciences, you don’t have to be the “smartest person in the world.” All it takes is a strong support group and that one spark of ambition to create change.

-Julia Monkovic

Succeeding at Failing By Michael Meleties

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Succeeding at Failing
By Michael Meleties

I’ve never had a failed experiment; is that because I’m the smartest person who’s never made a wrong move and deserves all the awards?

I’d love to believe that, but I think it actually comes down to how you respond to perceived failures. Failed experiments can be defined as experiments that do not meet the proposed objective. I’d postulate that the broader objective of each experiment is to continue gaining knowledge, so as long as something has been learned, the experiment is by definition a success.

This even holds true in something as mundane as setting up a dialysis bag. Dialysis is used to separate molecules in solution, using a membrane which is clipped at both ends, forming the dialysis bag. I’ve dropped dialysis bags (they’re slippery!) and even lost samples multiple times in my work. While I was frustrated with myself for not being able to accomplish something so simple and thought I was failing at doing this, what I eventually realized is that with each “failed” attempt I was actually learning what works for me in setting up dialysis. It started with setting up a boat to catch any dropped sample, and towards the latter stages I felt out more efficient ways of holding the bag to prevent slippage. Over time my entire set-up was optimized so that everything was where it needed to be when I made dialysis bags.

Dialysis is a small task that is common in protein engineering labs, so how does that make me a successful researcher? It doesn’t. The success is found in continuously learning from each attempt. I can think of countless experiments that haven’t gone the way I wanted them to when I first did them. However, I can’t think of any that I didn’t learn from.

I believe that this persistence and resilience is one of the cornerstones of research. If there’s one takeaway from this posting, I’d want the reader to re-evaluate their perceived failures and see them for what they really are: minor successes leading up to the big one!

Michael Meleties

I’m curious, what are some of your successes? Tweet me at @m_meleties

The GRC Magic by Priya Katyal

The GRC Magic

Recently, I had the privilege to attend the Gordon Research Conference (GRC) at Waterville Valley, NH. For those who are unfamiliar with GRCs, GRC is considered very prestigious with admissions contingent upon acceptance of an application. These meetings are typically attended by world renowned experts from leading institutions and industries. The conference has a ‘unique format’ where you can interact freely with the experts.

When I came across the GRC on Preclinical Form and Formulation for Drug Discovery in late March, I realized that I had missed the deadline to submit the abstract for an oral presentation. Fortunately, the poster abstract submissions were still open. In filling out the application form, one has to justify conference attendance and contribution to the meeting. My advisor mentioned that many people apply to these conferences but not all are accepted and asked me to come up with a thoughtful answer. I still remember I struggled in formulating the best answer, with my inner critic dragging me down at each response. I was turning down my own application as I was afraid of not getting selected. After wrestling with my thoughts, I finally put together my reasons for attending the conference. However, I was still not satisfied; I had become a prisoner of my own mind, striving for perfection. After receiving feedback and reassurance from my mentor, I was finally set free from my own self-doubt. Besides discussing the aspects of my work and its impact on human health, I also included how attending GRC would expand and improve my future experimental/scientific approaches, and most importantly the value of gaining feedback from experts in the field that together make such work possible. I finalized everything and submitted the application.

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Surprisingly, the next morning I received an email saying “Congratulations! You have been accepted to attend the GRC”. I was happy to secure the invitation and elated to attend the GRC.

When I attended the conference, I was pleased to receive positive feedback on my poster, but I never thought that I could make it all the way to the ‘Top 25 Posters’ and then further to ‘The Best Four’. This honor meant more to me than my other poster awards, considering that I was selected by a jury of my peers.

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Winning this award has confirmed that the work we have been doing is worth the effort. I want to send a big shout out to the members of Montclare lab/Liu lab, and of course, thanks to the conference organizers/attendees who voted for me. It was my first time attending the GRC and it was definitely one to remember.

The experience at GRC has made me realize that doubting your abilities is normal (we all do), but I shouldn’t let that stop me from pursuing my dreams. I have long considered the GRC to be my dream conference, one that is attended only by the elite of the elite. I feel everyone should believe in the magic of their dreams, and don’t be afraid to push yourself. And if you are, don’t be afraid to seek advice. The results might amaze you, too!

-Priya Katyal

Professor Montclare- Opening Post

Open advice to new PhD students

Recently, a former high school student researcher I have worked with emailed me for advice on pursuing her Ph.D. and an academic career. In the email, she noted how in attending scientific meetings, she noticed the lack of women investigators and expressed how it bothered her that women are treated “differently.”

“Differently”…as soon as I saw that word, it immediately struck a chord with me. As much as I wanted to shield her, I knew I could not. With the NASEM report on sexual harassment etched in the back of my mind, I had many layers of concerns, especially for women. Fortunately, I had a supportive PhD advisor, Alanna Schepartz, who at the time was the only tenured female faculty in the department. She was my biggest cheerleader and when she once overheard me doubt my ability in the lab, she encouraged me to continue on my path and simply assured me I was more than capable. And while it was wonderful to be supported, there were unfortunately others (faculty/ students) who were not. So I thought hard about my experience and the things I have done in light of being treated “differently.”

As I thought, the words just fell into place. Below is an excerpt of my reply.

“My advice for what you should do in your Ph.D. is to first work for someone who is supportive. This is crucial. No matter how exciting science may be, if your advisor is not supportive, it will be an uphill battle…science is tough enough, so adding an unsupportive advisor is not worth it and can derail many young scientists.

Focus on doing good science and make sure you read a lot, as it will help you understand what excellent science is but also save time in the long run in terms of not reinventing the wheel. It’s not about how hard you work, it’s about how smart you work.

And as you are doing now with me, network and keep making those connections. Gather advice, ask for help but also give back and share that advice/help. This includes mentors and peers. Build a support group — and the more diverse it is, the better, as research ideas and dealing with experimental failures (there will be many) can come from the most unexpected sources. Having allies and supporters helped me quite a bit in my transition to faculty member. In fact, I think this is by far the most important thing that has helped me.

I know it’s hard and you are correct that there are few women/women of color in this role. There will be those who will want to disparage you and diminish your success. They may attribute your success to your gender. Tune those folks down. And build a network that will support you.

It is possible to succeed in academia. Working on my own projects with an awesome group of students/postdocs is incredibly rewarding.”

After submitting this message off to her, I realized that there are others who might be in similar situations or seeking advice in general. And while the individuals who have worked directly with me are able to get my advice and mentorship, it should be available to everyone. So here it is for those of you who need it and for those of you who have questions, like my former high school student about STEM and career paths in STEM. Please express it in a comment below so my group and I can do our best to answer!

-Jin Montclare