Stephani Page, currently a doctoral student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Biochemistry & Biophysics Department, was one of the first students to complete the Biophysical Society Summer Research Program, in 2008. After this year’s reunion weekend, she reflected on her experiences in the program and how it helped lay the foundation for success in her PhD program.
Though it feels like yesterday, the swath of gray hairs growing from my temple tells me otherwise: the first day of the Biophysics Summer Course was over seven years ago. Barry Lentz, the director at the time, laid out his expectations for the next two and half months. In what I know now to be typical Barry fashion, he announced to my fellow classmates that I was accepted into the PhD program at UNC and that I would gain a lot from the summer program. He was correct.
The summer program was an opportunity to transition into my PhD program, and I needed to make the most of it. Looking back on the experience, I can think of many key benefits – but I narrowed it down to just two. I built a network that would prove to be very important for my tenure as a graduate student; and as I gained knowledge in biophysical applications, I developed skills that would prove beneficial for my classes and research.
Graduate school is stressful, to say the least. My favorite analogy calls a PhD program an endurance race. I considered it paramount to build a network of people invested in my success. The summer course gave me the opportunity to encounter different faculty so that I could begin to assess who would be a part of my system of advocates and advisors. I met my graduate PI, my committee chair, and two of my committee members during the summer course. One of those committee members was my summer course PI. In a broad sense, through the summer course, I learned more about how to identify those individuals who are invested in my success and who care about my wellbeing as I strive to reach my goals. I began to learn the difference between a mentor and an advisor, why each is important, and the ways that they can overlap. I learned to identify my own needs as a budding scientist – a skill that I build on to this day. Though not everyone who participates in the summer course chooses to attend UNC or get a PhD, the ability to identify what you need in order to thrive in any environment is invaluable.
I had a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and graduated from my master’s program in Biology during the summer course. To that point, I hadn’t been in an environment where I could blend those two backgrounds, much less make sense of a broad, interdisciplinary field such as biophysics. The summer course exposed me to biophysical techniques such as x-ray crystallography, NMR, mass spectrometry, and fluorescence spectroscopy. We were exposed to molecular dynamics simulations and bioinformatics. Statistical mechanics, partition functions, and Boltzmann – the physics of life took on meaning. And I was able to apply what I was learning through my own research project. By the time I was sitting in classes as a graduate student, I had experienced (and endured) these primers on topics that were complex and difficult. I was able to approach my classes without being intimidated. In moments of difficulty, I had relationships with faculty and more senior graduate students (who I had encountered during the summer course) and I was able to get help. As a teaching assistant, I had examples to use in order to help other graduate students grasp concepts. Overall, it was a crash course in critical analysis, collaboration, and interdisciplinary approaches applicable to any environment
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of my faculty support system during my PhD program were individuals I had encountered during the summer course. I am thankful to say that I have built a support system of people who had completed the summer course with me, and in years after my class. There is a common bond that we share as the select few who were able to encounter this experience. As a graduate student on the cusp of completing my PhD, I look back on the experience with fondness. The summer course is geared toward students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in biophysics and related areas or science. Whether those individuals from underrepresented groups adopt the banner or not, as we navigate the various fields of science, we are trailblazers. We will bring others along. We will clear paths. We will mentor, advise, and advocate. The Biophysics Summer Course, to me, continues to represent an opportunity to learn more about oneself, to gain knowledge and skills applicable to any environment, and to build networks aimed at ensuring one’s own success.
Find out more about the Biophysical Society Summer Research Program in Biophysics.