What are your thoughts on pineapple on pizza?
If you had told me in 2009 that I would be a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology, I would’ve laughed in your face before going back to playing Team Fortress 2. Scientific research had never even crossed my mind as a career—at that point in my life I was convinced that I would be a doctor (I had said so since I was a toddler apparently) or a lawyer (I had recently competed in a student congress invitational and done quite well, I was also a big fan of Boston Legal at the time). I had never even seen the inside of a real lab, and in my mind the only type of labs that existed were those in Dexter’s Laboratory or in CSI: Miami. (Although in retrospect, I can’t believe I didn’t think labs were cool and now I’m a little sad that they typically don’t come with secret entrances…)
Fast forward to 2015 and I was graduating with my B.S. in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology from UCLA. So yes, while I did pursue a degree in science, I did so with the intention of being a medical doctor. But whether it was because I watched too much Grey’s Anatomy, or that I just didn’t have the temperament or personality to become a doctor, I simply didn’t want to pursue that career anymore. Instead, I found that I had become incredibly comfortable with working in a research lab. Unsurprisingly, like almost every pre-med out there, I had joined a lab at Caltech as a research intern to gain “lab/research experience” (gotta check off those essential pre-med boxes folks).
I never pursued an honors thesis or anything like that at UCLA because I figured “why bother, it won’t be useful as a doctor!” (ohhhhh boyyyyyyy was I wrong), and instead chose to work at Caltech with a mentor of mine from UCLA (she was a student 3 years my senior, shoutout and thanks to Sravya!). Thank goodness the Protein Expression Center (PEC) at Caltech took a chance on me, because it gave me a chance to do research firsthand! Well… firsthand was technically the correct terminology, but saying I was doing research was quite the stretch. I didn’t know this at the time, but in reality, most undergrads in a lab are basically glorified dish washers… ☹
Despite the tedium of the manual labor though, my time in the research lab was incredibly fulfilling thanks to the mentorship of Sravya and the PEC’s director Dr. Jost Vielmetter. In addition to my duties as a dishwasher, they taught me the joys of learning (and failing at) science. I still remember the first time I majorly screwed up—I had made 30% ethanol instead of 70%, and therefore messed up a bunch of maxi-preps that day. [Maxi-preps are a standard protocol in biology to isolate DNA from bacteria cultures, they typically require 70% ethanol to wash the DNA; the use of 30% ethanol meant that the DNA got eluted… into the wash.]
I was certain I’d get chewed out, or worse yet, fired for making such a rookie/careless mistake. Instead though, they both took the time to explain to me 1) how they figured out that the mistake was due to the wrong reagent being made, 2) why 70% ethanol was necessary, and 3) how to avoid mistakes like this in the future.
During undergrad, I had gotten so used to being a single person in a crowded lecture hall of 200 that I had forgotten how exciting it was to learn about why things in science needed to be precise and how researchers worked together. Though I didn’t know it at that time, that and many other experiences with Sravya and Jost ultimately led me to apply for a full-time research technician position at Caltech post-graduation from UCLA. I knew that in order to “make up time” and to get into a PhD program, I’d ultimately have to gain more research experience.
Jost encouraged me to join the Bjorkman Lab at Caltech and I became responsible for the protein purification pipeline for the PEC and Bjorklab. The job wasn’t glamorous (and was honestly quite monotonous) but it taught me important things that I hope will help me succeed in grad school. Things like communicating with fellow scientists (I know we try to humanize scientists on this site, but it can be genuinely terrifying to talk to someone with leagues of knowledge beyond your own and have to ask really simple questions), working in a team (when I say pipeline, I mean it! Thanks for all your help Erica, Han, and Annie!), supporting other graduate students and learning from them (xoxo Alex), taking good notes (you try to keep 20L of cell culture straight without taking meticulous notes!), and honestly so much more. There are no useless members/jobs in the lab, only by working as a team can you get experiments running smoothly!
My time with the Bjorkman Lab convinced me that I wanted to stay in science but that I wanted to learn even more and to work independently in the lab. It was incredibly enticing to think about all the neat things I could do in the lab—I didn’t want to just learn techniques, I wanted to own a project. And really, I do still have some of that vanity that makes me want to be called a doctor—but while it’s been a long journey to get to grad school, I get the feeling it’ll be a Luong-er one earning my doctorate! I just recently started my PhD program at San Diego State University/University of California San Diego (it’s a joint PhD program that I’m sure one of us here at PassioInventa will elaborate on with more detail sometime in the future) but I look forward to the many experiments to come! Stay tuned for more updates, I know I’ll certainly want to share. 😊