Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Lenses on Biology: From Geckos to Grad School – essay from a PhD student – Cells

This week’s issue of Nature includes a special Outlook supplement, Lenses on Biology. The 5 lenses are essays adapted from chapters in a new, interactive undergraduate textbook, Principles of Biology, published by Nature Education. The essays focus on what we know about cancerstem cellssynthetic biologyocean health and climate change.

To tie in with this special, we asked five biological scientists at different levels of their careers – from high school student to post doc – to tell their personal stories about why they decided to study one of the five featured subjects. Enjoy this closer look at what motivates scientists! 

Our second post is by PhD student Christie Wilcox, she talks about her career path and fascination with the molecular world. 

Christie Wilcox is a science writer who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. She graduated from Eckerd College in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Science. She studies the evolution of toxic proteins in fish. Find more about her life and work by visiting her blog, Science Sushi at  Scientific American, or her website.


I’m not one of those people who wanted to be a biologist for as long as I can remember. Don’t get me wrong – everyone else who knew me as a kid could have seen it coming. There’s a note in my school record from when I was five about how I liked to “find dead geckos and open their mouths to see their tongues.” I just didn’t realize that I could turn that passion for animals and the outdoors into a career until I went to college. In 2007, when I graduated with my bachelor’s in marine science, I felt like the world had opened itself up to me. I could do anything I wanted.

That was the problem.

When you consider getting a graduate degree, you feel this pressure to be sure. PhD programs in the sciences are 5+ years of intense, focused work. When I was a junior at Eckerd College, almost all of my marine science classmates already knew what programs they wanted to apply to, who they would pick for an advisor and what kind of science they wanted to do. Not me. I loved all of it, but felt like none of it was really ‘my field’. I kept starting applications, but I didn’t feel like I was taking the first step towards my future – I felt like I was filling out paperwork.

As I started my senior year, I was a mess. I had looked into various programs around the world, but nothing seemed to fit. Ultimately, I realized, I just wasn’t confident enough to commit the next five years of my life to someone. I wasn’t ready. So while my friends applied to grad schools, I applied to jobs. I ended up spending two years as a research assistant studying adenosine A2B receptor signaling cascades. I was bored out of my mind. It might seem strange that I am now working towards a degree in Cell and Molecular Biology given that I found work in a molecular lab mind-numbingly tedious, but I can explain.

Guess what? Like most day-to-day tasks, lab work is boring. It’s no better than pushing paperwork around a cubicle. There is nothing exciting about mixing chemicals or preparing tissues for molecular analysis. I can confidently say that, without a doubt, pipetting is the single most monotonous task on the planet. The thing is, none of us choose our jobs based on the grunt work. People don’t become lawyers because they like filing depositions. Doctors don’t choose medicine because they like filling out patient charts. Every job has inane aspects. What you love about what you do is really your job – the rest of it is just paperwork.

I got into science for a lot of reasons. I have always loved animals of all shapes and sizes. My childhood desire to gaze upon gecko tongues was just the beginning of a life-long obsession that includes squealing each and every time I hold a baby anything, an inexplicable urge to swim towards dangerous animals instead of away, and compulsively touching the bells of jellyfish. My passion for wildlife is only trumped by my fascination with puzzles. I am excited by the adventure of science, by the idea of stepping out into the universe and discovering something no one else has ever seen or solving a mystery no one else has. My roommate has aptly named the ridiculous way I jump up and down when an experiment works my ‘T. rex dance’, presumably for the manner in which I flail my arms around while keeping my elbows pinned to my sides. Given these passions, it’s no surprise that the field of biology electrifies me.

I’m especially fascinated by molecular biology. There’s something beautiful about the complexity of life at such a small scale. I find it simply amazing that you can take information from DNA and use it to learn more about that cell’s environment, activities, or even how the entire organism evolved. We do things every day that just fifty years ago, no one would have thought was possible and then every day we push forward even more. Stem cells are a great example – in the 1950s, we didn’t even know they existed, yet now their pluripotent potential is on the verge of creating test-tube organs and treating debilitating diseases once thought incurable. Molecular biology is one of the fastest moving fields of science, making it one of the hardest but most rewarding disciplines to study.

The problem with my post-collegiate job wasn’t that I was in the wrong field. I came to realize that I didn’t like what I was doing because I was a technician, not a scientist. As far as science goes, I was just doing paperwork.

When I applied to graduate schools, I still wasn’t 100% sure. I didn’t have a project or an advisor. I hadn’t carved out my scientific niche. But I was sure that I wanted to, and I was sure that I needed a higher degree to do that. I don’t regret taking those years in between because I learned to trust my passion and let it form the foundation for my career. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”





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