Sept 1, 2019
I’ve been fortunate to have solid mentors in the time from undergrad-now. This post is brought to you by 1) my gratitude for my mentors along the way and 2) the fact that I’ve gone on a blogging hiatus and felt guilty for my lack of posts.
My first mentor of college was probably my “Big sister” on my college cross country team, Rayanne. My first year, she helped me navigate my new home at Geneseo, and ensured that I always had help with school, especially math. She is now pursuing her PhD in Math, and also trains for marathons! (ANOTHER PHDISTANCE GAL!!) Her encouragement was the most memorable thing though; she always pumped me up for competition with pre-race good-luck wishes, cards, and snacks. I still have every card she’s ever given me, because I’m a hoarder🤷🏻♀️
My first academic mentor was probably Dr. Jim Olson. Prior to meeting him, I literally had no idea what the heck I wanted to do after college, and the “after college” part of life was only two years away. I would have a degree in Biochemistry, but no plan other than that. I made good grades in school, and loved science. Like any good liberal-arts student, I also felt a strong conviction to save the environment. I thought that I wanted to go into environmental research, but I had a horrible summer experience that really soured my view on that. I thought about going into food science, but a family friend warned me that I would be testing the consistency of pizza cheese for the rest of my life (**NOW that this is ridiculous, but at the time I was really intimidated!). Altogether, I felt a bit misguided with the available undergraduate research at my college, and hesitant about a science career in general. Nevertheless, I sent out cold emails to professors at the University of Buffalo (UB). I picked UB because if I was going to try lab research, I would prefer it be close to home. I used search terms like “biochemistry” and “environment” and ended up finding Dr. Olson, who studied neurotoxic pesticides.
He told me to apply to UB’s summer research program, and he’d be my mentor. So, I spent a summer with Olson’s toxicology lab in Buffalo through one of those “Summer research experience” programs that typically have alphabet-soup acronyms (e.g. SURF, REU, CLIMB). The work itself was monotonous- I did the same thing every day. But I was really into the “big picture” of the research, and made sure I did it well. Olson is a really supportive PI, and I loved working in his lab. I befriended one of his Master’s students, Sam. (She’s now a PhD student in his lab! Yay Sam!). Sam and I went to the Society of Toxicology meeting that spring together to present research done in Olson’s lab.
I’m writing a lot, I realize… But it’s hard not to! I feel like that experience had given me so much. I’ll focus on the key points… OK. Because of one great mentor, I had the opportunity to 1) learn about the field of toxicology and 2) go to my first academic conference. There, I met students from the U of R (a few of them have since become good friends!), and learned that they were one of the best programs in the country for toxicology. I knew I could see myself in that program, studying toxicology in Rochester. I was worried that I was too inexperienced to consider applying to their program, but Dr. Olson encouraged me to apply, and said he’d write me a letter of rec.
Fast forward, I got accepted into the program, and before I even moved to Rochester, my to-be student mentor, Kelly was helping me figure out housing, health insurance, setting up research rotations, and what “taxes” are & why it’s bad if I don’t do them… (For those of you that are unfamiliar, a rotation is a short ~10 week research “taste” students do to determine if they are a good fit for a potential lab of interest). My toxicology training program has a mentoring tradition where the third-year students (which now include me – more on that later) help incoming first year students navigate their first year in graduate school. From what I’ve experienced, a really solid mentor will keep the conversation going past that. This post is partially inspired from that experience. My graduate student mentor ended up being Kelly! She’s kept me updated on program requirements, encouraged me to join extracurricular programs that have since given me a lot of joy to be part of (GSS!), helped me navigate professional settings, choose a lab, and been a good friend to me. BTW she actually just defended her doctoral thesis to earn her PhD at the end of July (HECK YES KELLY!!), and started a job in mid-August. #goddess
As I enter my third year, she won’t be in Rochester, but she’s still in my corner ❤
My thesis advisor, Matt, is also a solid mentor. We are a fruit-fly lab (Drosophila melanogaster, if you fancy, or are trying to sound fancy), as well as a toxicology lab. I previously knew next to nothing about either of these things, so there has been quite a bit to learn to get my “lab legs.” Luckily, Matt is really patient, and fun to work for. This has made me want to work hard in lab. But, what makes him great is how he acts when I don’t want to work hard because I’m feeling burnt out. He’s really good at reinvigorating me about the research when I’m feeling down, and maintains a positive attitude all of the time. One time I gave a pretty lousy (in my opinion) practice talk, and thought he’d be disappointed in me. Instead, he said I did fine, that I’d be ready in a few days, and we went on a run and talked about anything except science. I think he’s very good at helping me maintain a work-life balance… (psst- Check out my previous post about how key this is in graduate school!)
As I mentioned a bit ago, I’m now a third-year graduate student. This means I have to Qual soon (September 20! EEP!!), but also that I’m now a mentor. Basically, I aspire to be like my mentors so far; I want to spread positivity, encourage opportunity, be a good friend, and be a stabilizing influence.