Tell us about where you are now in your academic career.
I recently graduated from Rutgers University with a double major in theoretical physics and mathematics. Come September, I will be starting a masters program in biophysics at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris VI) in France. I plan to continue towards a PhD at the end of my masters, either staying in Europe or maybe somewhere stateside where it’s always warm, like California.
What is your research focus?
I’ve spent most of my time as an undergrad exploring research options more than focusing on any specific thing. I’ve done research in high-energy experimental particle physics, in neurobiology, in genomics, and extremely briefly in optics. At the moment, I am not obligated to any specific field of research, but I am being drawn more and more towards neurophysics in regards to understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases, as well as aspects of membrane biophysics.
When and how did you first become interested in this type of research?
I had some health issues regarding my nervous system a few years back and was really frustrated at the lack of answers and solid methodologies in diagnosis. While that frustration was more owed to my lack of patience, it did spark my curiosity in reading up on biophysics and neurophysics in general and prompted my desire to return to school to pursue my degree.
What was the most important thing you learned or took away from the summer program that helped you get where you are at now?
The summer program taught me that a PhD program is not some cutthroat outdo-your-peers competition, but rather it is a support group that is trying to help its members succeed academically, socially, and mentally. It showed me that people ranging from administrators, mentors, peers, and even unaffiliated people like professors from different departments are all willing to offer their time and support even if you don’t do anything related to what they are doing.
The program also exposed me to various types of work being done in biophysics. I had a better understanding of what work was being done in the field, and helped me both broaden and narrow my vision in the type of work I hope to pursue in my career in biophysics. The guest lecturers, the alumni, and the one-on-one counseling I received from various people both related directly and indirectly, was formative in creating the idea of what I believe is my future career goals.
What was your favorite thing about the summer program?
If not all the wonderful food (I’m not even joking here), it has to be all the people I met. My fellow students, the TAs, Mike, Barry, Lisa; everyone had a part in creating the awesome time I had during the program. I was exposed to so many types of personalities and lives a scientist could live, and I received so much good advice that has helped me get to where I am now and will probably continue to advance my growth as a scientist. I believe that during that short span of time, I was able to make connections, find new friends and mentors who I could depend on for support throughout my academic and professional career, and well into the rest of my life. Biophysics is such a broad field, and it requires a vast pool of knowledge to answer the questions posed in it. The program made it such that we all came from widely differing academic fields so that we could work together during our time in the program as well as call on each other for support for our individual work.
However, let me repeat once again, the food was great. I have cravings for that vinegar-based North Carolina barbecue sometimes.
What advice would you give for current undergraduates interested in pursuing a higher degree?
It’s not about how intelligent you are or how easily you can grasp the topic, but about persistence and consistency. Many people fall into this trap where they think just because they’re not the smartest or the fastest among their cohort, that they aren’t good enough for graduate school or beyond. Absolutely not true. You might have to put in some extra hours with the book or at the lab, but if you can hunker down and get working, consistently and diligently, you most definitely can reach that higher degree.
Have mentors played a role in your success? If so, how?
Absolutely, yes. I had multiple mentors during the program. Some were obvious mentors, and some not so much. I think you have to really take advantage of everything the program offers, whether that’s advice from your post-doc lab mentor about the research, or from a TA who was just recently in your shoes, or from a professor you sit down for conversation over lunch who tells you about how he got to where he is today, or even just passing by an office of one of the administrators and having a small chat that leads into something deeper. In whatever situation, summer program or not, there will be people out there who can help you figure out how to orient your compass.
What have been some of your toughest challenges so far in advancing your career?
Trying to figure out where my true passions lied in regards to the field I wanted to pursue. Luckily, the professors and programs I’ve applied to and been a part of have been more than helpful in guiding me towards my goal rather than trying to make me settle for any one specific thing.
Another tough thing is trying to get over what is commonly known as “imposter syndrome.” You study, you do your problem sets, you do research, but that fear of not being good enough makes you feel like you’re a fraud. That’s another thing the program helped with, is that I got to meet people along the various stages of a career path, whether in academia or industry, and it showed me that this is what everyone goes through, and as I said before, persistence and consistency are the keys to success.