Choosing a Career Path

Academia or Industry? This seems to a dilemma that almost all students in the science major faced. Just like them, I have not a single clue on what I want to do after I graduate with a degree in Biology. With no one in my family in the science field, both industry and academia seems to be a mystery to me. Thanks to the two amazing events that CSEP put on for the summer intern program (the Dinner with Faculty and the Dinner with Industry) I was given an opportunity to talk to people who are experienced in each field. These two events are extremely helpful for learning what it is like working in industry or in academia.

I have always thought of academia and industry as two parallel worlds that are so different from each other that they never cross path. To my surprise, I found out that there is actually not as big of a difference as I previously believed. Research in the industry and academia actually overlaps in many ways and are very similar in many aspect. Often, professors in research university collaborates with companies for new discoveries and some professors even started their own company. Scientists in the industry also conduct researches in similar fashion as professors. They have to meet deadlines, write research proposal for money, be the leader of the lab just like any research professors. In addition, for science major students who are fresh out of college, working in academia and in industry seems to be very similar as well. Both as a graduate student and as scientist in industry, one always start out with lots of hours behind the bench and slowly rises to a leadership position.
After the opportunity to talk to professors and leaders in industries, I completely change my view on my career path. In both industry and in academia, one has tremendous flexibility to switch from one to another or maybe even work in both.

Learning to Think

Growing up, I have only seen the success of science. From the science textbooks in elementary school to the textbooks in college, there are only the record of success and never the slightest hint of failures or the endless hours or years that scientists spent in the laboratories in order to reached a breakthrough.

Because of this, before I actually started in a research lab, I believed to some degree, that the success of scientists requires only a great idea and the rest comes effortless and fairly quickly. With great idea, scientists simply have to run a few experiments and then they will found their fame achieving and mind blowing discoveries. But this is not what actually happened. Research discoveries is not something that comes easily. It did not happen to the greatest scientists and it will not to me.

My view changed completely after I finally see real life research in action. I have realized that research is a protracted war that requires the presence of both the mind and the body throughout the fight and I was not prepared for any of it when I first started. I was not prepared for those 8 hour experiment, the repeating of experiments, and definitely not for the intense self driven thinking required.

For my first two weeks in the lab, I have been learning and doing one thing and one thing only: the Western blot. Western blot is a technique we used to check for the amount of a specific protein in cells. It is a complicated and lengthy experiment that has more than twenty pages of experimental protocol and takes two whole days to complete. Every step requires great attention to details and delicate hand. When I could finally run the experiment smoothly without many mistakes, I thought that I have already experienced how hard scientific research can be. However, I soon learned that I was wrong.

In a casual conversation with my faculty advisor, Professor Ma, I was asked to explain why we test out the three protein GAT for all samples. While I thought that I understood that it is used to see the consistency of the samples, I found myself stuttering when it came down to explaining the logic behind it and how it does that. This is when I first realized that I have been doing Western blot for a whole week without even taking time to think it through. In the conversation with Professor Ma I learned what really meant the most in research: thinking.

Scientific research requires thinking at all time. The time when waiting for the experiment to be done, the time when analyzing experimental result, or even time when one is just walking from the transferring room to the LiCor machine. Thinking the most important part of scientific research and also the hardest part of it. Research requires a person to step up and embrace the fact that he or she does not know everything but can work hard to learn or think hard to find a logical explanation.