How I Became A Scientist

(The following is a post I wrote for Bio Yelp on how I became a scientist. Hopefully you find something in here informative or interesting!)

My brain is a physical object, and my mind emerges from physical processes.

This basic realization struck me when I was 15, during a lesson about the nervous system. How could mind possibly emerge from matter?

I was entranced by this question. The fact that matter can give rise to mind is both a scientific and philosophical mystery. But back in high school, I was more caught up in the philosophical aspect of this question. I was more captivated by the fact that experience could bloom out of chemical and electric processes than I was by what those processes might actually be.

This focus on philosophy wasn’t out of disinterest in science, but instead was out of a belief that I was bad at science. Science classes had always been hard for me – so much so that I even intended to major in English at Princeton (where I did my bachelor’s degree).

But my outlook changed completely when I picked up Carl Sagan’s Cosmos at a bookstore the summer after my freshman year of college. I’d been reading a few popular science books that summer, since I was curious about what scientists had to say about the nature of things – I figured that popular science books were a more inviting way to learn what scientists had to say than were science courses.

I can’t overemphasize how big an impact Sagan’s book had on my life. What so enthralled me about Cosmos weren’t Sagan’s descriptions of space, of the mechanisms of life, or of the history of science. Instead, I was captivated by his poetic vision of the process of science itself – of science as a way of thinking, rather than as a body of knowledge. The fact that we can come to know the universe, simply by proposing mathematically-inspired theories and rigorously testing those theories against nature, seemed incredibly beautiful to me.

I was so inspired by Cosmos that I decided to become a scientist. I was still interested in all the big questions of human experience, but I wanted to pursue those questions scientifically, and the best way to do that was through neuroscience.

The transition from the humanities to neuroscience was incredibly difficult. In my first semester taking science and math courses – which included calculus, molecular biology, and introductory neuroscience – I constantly questioned my ability to do well. In fact, I didn’t do so well at first: my GPA in that first semester taking science classes was a lot lower than it had been during the previous semesters. But the passion I had felt after reading Cosmos drove me through the difficulties of a science education, and it still drives me through the difficulties of a research career today. I just had to hold on to what inspired me.

During the semester in which I enrolled in science classes for the first time, I joined a neuroscience lab as a research assistant. My research duties didn’t require much scientific knowledge at first (which was good news for me!). My job was pretty simple: I would invite our research subjects into the psychology building around 10pm, set them up at a computer, and explain to them the memory test they were about to take. At the end of the test, I’d give them money. This went on for a few months, as part of a larger study my lab was conducting on how the brain consolidates memories during sleep.

The following summer, I stayed at Princeton to help run more studies, and began learning computer programming. Programming was crucial to my scientific development, and I think that anyone who wants to become a scientist needs to know some programming (Matlab, Python, and R are all incredibly useful programming languages in science – and there are great online resources for learning these languages for free!). Learning to program meant that I could analyze data, which in turn meant that I could begin to work with actual brain recordings. That made it possible to get involved in a brain imaging study on the mechanisms of time perception, which became the basis for my undergraduate thesis at Princeton.

During this whole process, I was fortunate to have a very supportive research advisor, which probably played a role in my realization that I was better at scientific research than I was in science classes. Doing well in a science class typically means being able to memorize a lot of information, or solving math problems on a test. As for the memorization part, I didn’t get good at committing a bunch of facts to memory until late in my college career (learning to memorize is a skill, not a talent, and it can definitely be acquired!). As for the math, I was decent at it if given plenty of time to work on it, but I always performed pretty poorly on math tests (and I still do, even though my research is very math-heavy!).

Getting involved in a lab not only convinced me that I could become a scientist, but also ended up being critical for my admission into a PhD program. When it comes to getting into graduate programs, research experience and letters of recommendation from scientists are often more important than grades. And both research experience and letters of recommendation come out of working in a lab. So, if you want to eventually pursue a PhD, I recommend doing what you can to get work as a research assistant! (It can be pretty competitive to get into a lab, especially at big universities, so sometimes it takes a lot of work and patience to get a research job – it took me months to find one of my lab jobs after college!).

After graduating from Princeton, I spent some time as a research assistant at Caltech, where I ran a behavioral study on decision making, and then as a lab manager at a UC Berkeley neuroscience lab. After that, I worked as a clinical researcher at a neurotechnology start-up in San Francisco for a year. During this time, I honed my programming and analysis skills through online courses, and expanded my knowledge of neuroscience and psychology through reading. It was also a great time to explore my non-academic interests: it was during this period that I first began doing science communication through blogging and social media.

But academia was where I wanted to end up, so in the Fall of 2015 I returned to UC Berkeley to enroll in its neuroscience PhD program. After rotating in a number of research labs and learning new research techniques – including computational modeling and the analysis of electric signals recorded directly from the cortex – I started to develop my own research goals, which grew out of my interest in the neural correlates of consciousness. Specifically, I wanted to study how information travels along large brain networks, and how that information flow might relate both to our conscious level (e.g. being awake or anesthetized) and to what we perceive.

But to solve big questions like these, I first had to solve a lot of little problems: I spent the first two and a half years of my PhD just developing a way to measure information flow in large brain networks. Only now am I beginning to apply my method to actual brain recordings to study anesthesia and perception.

But that’s how science works: it’s slow and tedious. If you’re passionate about humanity’s prospects for understanding the world and our place in it, or about improving people’s quality of life through advances in medicine and technology, then the tedium is more than worth it. Humans will one day figure out the world and how we came to wake up in it. In the meantime, it’s great to play any part – however puny – in helping us along the way there!

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