I went to a small liberal arts college which had a very small chemistry program (some of my classes had just me and one other person). For an elective I was given the choice of either Inorganic Chemistry II class or doing research. I am really good at classwork and only so-so in the lab, plus at that time I was considering going to medical school and didn’t think research was something they were looking for, so I chose the easy route of taking the class. In retrospect, I think doing the research would have been a better choice for me. Not only would I have had more experience, I would have had less self-doubt coming into graduate school.
I took a year off after college to teach English and chemistry in China and finally decided that my ultimate goal was to teach college. I came to NC State in 2006 and began my career as a grad student in the chemistry department. I didn’t really know what specialty of chemistry I wanted to go into—I was thinking maybe organometallic chemistry would be cool. I signed up for my classes and ended up in an organometallic chemistry class, an organic chemistry class, and a bioinorganic chemistry class. The organometallic chemistry class was really cool, but I’m glad I didn’t choose that professor as my advisor since he moved to another school a year later. I had never even heard of bioinorganic chemistry before, but it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. I could study proteins, satisfying by biology interests, but also focus on things like flow of electrons and such, satisfying my chemistry interests.
The professor who taught that class was new to the department and looking for graduate students. I didn’t have anyone to ask about his mentoring style, so I just went based on what I saw of his personality and of his class. I thought I would have a blast, and for a while I did. Things took a negative turn, however, when he kicked out the best friend I had in the lab, at least to my estimation, unfairly. My rosy view of my advisor went away. Then, after accomplishing a lot in the lab (enough for a meaty paper (1)) and passing my prelims, my research started stalling—things just weren’t working the way we thought they should. That self-doubt from not having college research experience crept back in. I turned to my remaining lab mates for encouragement, but for the most part I felt they were cold at best and backstabbing at worst. I came up with an idea for a new project, one that I was really excited about involving crystallography of my protein, but even though my professor gave me the go-ahead I felt he was blocking me in my attempts to work on it. Then I went to a conference in Japan and got married. When I came back, my professor told me I was no longer going to be his student. I had to either find someone else in the department or leave with a Master’s. (By the way, my husband had just moved from 5 hours away when we got married so that I could finish my PhD; if we had known a month or two sooner I could have joined him where he lived instead of us both being out of work.)
I was planning on just quitting graduate school, but I talked to Dr. Kelly who was on my committee and was in charge of the fellowship that was paying my stipend. He encouraged me to stay at NC State, continue on with my fellowship, choose another department, and keep trying for my PhD. I looked at the biochemistry department’s website and met with Dr. Clark to see if I could join his lab. I had no idea what a great lab I had stumbled upon. My new advisor was everything my old advisor wasn’t: understanding, encouraging, fair. My new lab mates, especially my friend and mentor Sarah, and really everyone in the department were all very nice and supportive—much more so than my old lab mates. Plus, I like the research—I still get to work with proteins and finally got to do the crystallography I had been wanting to do. Now I’m on the verge of graduating—just two months until my PhD defense! It has been a very long journey but I’m so glad I’m finally at the finish line.
Still, when I get a chance to mentor undergraduate students who plan to go to graduate school, I’m not really sure what advice I will give them. Obviously, a good graduate advisor makes all the difference, but it is so hard to know ahead of time what they are really like, especially if there is nobody to ask. I’ll tell them to do all that they can to find out, at least. I’ll also tell them that they need to learn to read lots of scientific papers—those will really tie everything they learn together and give them new ideas. I’ll tell them to get as much experience as possible in undergrad but not to let themselves feel inferior to those with more experience in grad school. In many ways, grad school is like the story of the tortoise and the hare—determination is more important than perceived talent. Hopefully with that advice they will have a smoother path to the PhD than I did.
Cade C.E., Dlouhy A.C., Medzihradszky K.F., Salas-Castillo S.P. & Ghiladi R.A. (2010). Isoniazid-resistance conferring mutations in KatG: Catalase, peroxidase, and INH-NADH adduct formation activities, Protein Science 19, 458-474. DOI: 10.1002/pro.324