So you think you want to try science

Hey everyone! I thought I would spend today’s post talking about how I got into science.

So it all started when my parents got PhDs (before I was born). There hasn’t been a time in my life when I didn’t know about the option of getting a PhD. Not that that’s what I wanted to do necessarily. Let’s see – I wanted to be a paleontologist or a veterinarian or a marine biologist or a neuroscientist orrrrrr a biochemist? My parents attempted to encourage me to think about engineering so we built a bunch of radios together. However, I was really into cats, dolphins, whales, and other creatures. Hilariously, my 8th grade science fair project nicely merged engineering and animals. My dad and I built an “apparatus” that fed my cats if they pressed on a dispenser with their paws. My project was to train my cats to use the “apparatus” with different paws to see if they would selectively continue to use whichever paw I trained them with to eat. However, mostly my results showed that my cats were scared of the “apparatus”…. except when there was food available.

This is my cat Smokey enjoying the benefits of the “apparatus” – FREE FOOD!

Luckily for me, there was a ton of stuff available for me, a budding young scientist, to do to explore various aspects of science. I participated in Expanding Your Horizons, which was like a mini day of college where I signed up for various science workshops. All I remember now are two different workshops: one in which I learned about math (we did something cool with geometry and shapes) and another where I learned how to give “vaccinations” to oranges. This program is all over the country. Find a location near you for your middle school or high school girl!

Another fun activity I did was I took a marine biology class at the local university one summer. This class was a week long and we did all sorts of fun activities – like going out on a boat and getting sea sick testing various properties of ocean water, studying crabs, and dissecting *gasp* sharks. (Note: this was before I found out how much I loved sharks, though I still wasn’t super excited to participate. Also, our shark was pregnant! Did you know that some sharks give birth to live babies?! Craziness… sharks are so cool!). Anyyyyyyway – most universities have programs like this for high school students. I taught at one last summer and my students got to learn all sorts of biology that I didn’t get to learn until I was halfway through college! Super awesome (fair warning – the one I taught seemed really expensive so check out the prices before you get your kiddos all excited…. :-/)!

Some students might be interested to see if they like doing research in labs. I didn’t get to experience research until I was in college. For my first research project, I did a summer internship in Fort Collins, CO where I studied how a nasty virus called HTLV-1 takes over our cells. It was SO COOL. That was over 10 years ago and yet I can still tell you all about it.

Potassium showing off the lab to her mom at the end of the summer.
I was super proud that I got my own freezer box in the lab. This was my box where I put all of MY samples from MY experiments!

College students – this is the best part – you can get paid to do research! My first research experience was through a “Research Education for Undergraduates” program and it pays you a stipend to play in the lab! Also, at CU, we have the SMART program that I’ve worked for for the past 7 years. I like it even better than REU programs but it’s the same deal – think you might want to try research? Get paid to do it! Plus in the SMART program, you get to present your findings at a national conference (all expenses paid)! Besides summer research, most universities offer a chance for undergraduate students to work in a lab throughout the school year. Step 1: Find a professor you like. Step 2: Talk to him/her and mention that you would be interested in working in a lab. Depending on the professor/school/your schedule/etc, working in the lab could mean anything from making solutions to having your own independent research project so make sure you chat with the professor about his or her expectations for your experience. Also, if you have your own independent research project, chances are that you can apply for a grant through the school and get paid to do research during the school year! Awesome!

A note – high school students, don’t want to wait till you go to college to check out research? See if there is a professor in your area who wouldn’t mind having a high school student shadowing in the lab. We even have a program at CU for high school students to work full time in a lab (disclaimer: also super expensive)! However, you probably won’t get paid for this type of opportunity. Booo…

Since I didn’t do research until I was in college, I spent my summers and Saturdays at the best job ever – working at a vet clinic. I started out volunteering there the summer after my freshman year of high school and then they offered me a job starting that fall! My job started out with me working in the kennel mostly – walking dogs, feeding cats, etc – but then as I was there longer, I got more responsibilities. I learned how to hold animals for procedures, make up prescriptions, help with surgeries, and make surgery packs (which is where you clean all the tools and organize them appropriately for the most common surgeries). Making surgery packs is to this day one of my favorite work chores. There was something so delightful in the cleaning of the tools, the precise arrangement of everything for each pack into this neat square of fabric, the wrapping of the fabric around the pack, the sticking of “magical” autoclave tape (it turned black when the pack was sterilized) to close the pack, and then finally, the placement of the completed packs in the autoclave (=big scary machine that sterilizes things with heat and pressure) to be sterilized. I loved my job. I had so many fun stories about crazy clients and crazy animals. I had my favorite animals who boarded with us a lot (remind me to tell you about them sometime). It was an AMAZING job. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they like science/might want to be a vet some day.

So what happened to get me where I am today? Well after I graduated from college, I was still fairly undecided between vet school and grad school so I decided to see where life took me. It took me to New Mexico where I was in the PREP program (which was like a mini version of graduate school) for a year (also I met Cobalt). I worked in a lab full time (and had two independent projects). I also took some fun math and physics classes because I am a nerd and they were cool (also my advisor made me take the chemistry class he was teaching). This program paid me a nice salary and prepped me for graduate school. I really enjoyed working in my lab in the PREP program and decided that grad school sounded really fun (if this was a mini version of grad school, the real thing had to be way cooler). Plus, I really wanted my PhD (see my previous post for more info about that). So I went to grad school.

Note: I just want to remind you that my tuition was paid for for the PREP program and grad school. Plus, I got paid to work in the lab and all through grad school. This is the only advanced degree program that does not require you to be filthy rich or to take out tons of money worth of loans.

Grad school was pretty cool. I traveled all over the US to present my research at conferences and I got to go to France to learn about data analysis. Plus, I learned a LOT about microscopes. But it was also really hard. REALLY REALLY hard. And at the end of it, I realized that maybe I don’t want to do research anymore. As cool as it is being the expert of some crazy problem, and as much as I love sitting in the dark watching cells crawl around on a microscope, I think I need to be out of the lab and in the world with you guys!

So what’s next on the list? Not sure but I hope whoever hires me next is ready for this surgery pack-making, microscope- and camera-loving, stuffed shark- and kitty-cuddling doctor! :)

Now it’s your turn – what’s going on in your life career-wise? Did you have any crazy unexpected turns? What do you want to be when you grow up? Don’t you wish there was a class called “Hello, now that you are (insert age here) and have figured yourself out a little, take this class to figure out your next step”? I would take it!

This concludes our science posts for the month of January but stay tuned! More science is coming you way next month! We still need to talk about how to read about science and how to figure out who to “trust” with your science news!

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