A Calm Amidst the Storm

Strange, right? It is something that I have been thinking about lately. What is the one thing that keeps you grounded and focused when the rest of your world is falling apart and spinning to pieces?

For me, that is lab. It is this experience. I went into my undergraduate time thinking that I will never set foot in a wet lab because that is something that I cannot see myself doing ever. Being cooped up inside a research laboratory, sitting in front of an illuminated computer screen late into the night analyzing data, was something that I told myself — promised myself and others around me — that I would never in my life. Thus, I started seeking out clinical experience and dry labs to participate in. I found a clinical lab to volunteer in my first year or so at UCLA but then, when things got rough in my personal life as well as with the transfer process, academics, and my job, I decided I needed a break from the volunteering and to reevaluate all that I want out of my life.

It really came when I received my rejection letter from applying to be a Resident Assistant for my junior year. All my goals and aspirations from before this moment seemed so solidified; I was motivated and ready to tackle it all head-on. But then that one email changed everything for me. Drastic? Not really. From the time I received that email, I have been reevaluating things since. I have decided to venture down a road I promised myself I would never go down: to pursue medicine and go into molecular biology research.

That all said, I am so glad I decided to go down this path. In spite of everything that is happening in my personal life right now, the time I spend in lab is what keeps me calm. It is the place I want to go and am willing to go to after a long night, a long day in class, or just the typical day. Regardless of what it is I am doing for other aspects of my life, I am willing to drop everything and head into lab to make some acrylamide gels or grow bacteria or re-suspend pellets.

Opportunities like this come once in a lifetime, I like to think. Things fell into place in order for me to receive this offer and opportunity to work in the lab more full-time for the remainder of my undergraduate career. Sometimes I feel like the toys which toddlers play with, where there are various shapes and they need to be placed through the corresponding holes. It is as if there are thousands of shapes waiting to fall into place, and the one that has fallen into place is lab.

Even though there may be 999 more shapes that slowly need to fall into place, I am not worried. Why? Because though things may be a bit stormy right now in my life, I have lab, this calm amidst the storm. I am able to focus and clear my mind for just a few hours a day when I put on my hat as a research assistant for the Northwestern University Department of Molecular Biosciences.

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Starting from simple tasks.

They told me that as an undergraduate, all I would do is wash their used dishes and pipette microliters of substance a thousand times over. They told me that I would not ever do any meaningful research and that professors despised undergraduates.

Whoever told me this, I didn’t want to believe them, but I did. Rumors, they were.

I am glad that I kept an open mind going into my junior year. By doing so, I was able to meet somebody who knew a professor who was looking for an undergraduate to research in his lab and it just so happend the work the lab is doing relates to my interests.

I have been in the lab for a week. I have gone in three times now. Each day I have done something different. I have prepared bacteria to be transvected with a plasmid and grow, I have extracted plasmids from the bacteria that were grown, and I have made broth in which bacteria can grow. Each task, as simple as it may seem, has been a learning experience. I have not had to wash any dishes. I have not had to pipette micro quantities a thousand times over. What I have done is followed protocols. I have followed instructions given to me and been left alone to complete them. The post-doctoral student I am working with this quarter has helped me each step of the way, explaining why things are the way they are and then leaving me to do what i need to to. Nobody watches me like a hawk. And yet I am entrusted with the most basic yet critical tasks for running future experiments.

WIthout the work that I am doing now and the techniques I am learning, I will not be able to perform any future projects. It is critical (at least for the research the lab is doing) that bacteria can grow in large quantities and that plasmids are available in large quantities to work with and manipulate for future studies.

Everything I am doing has meaning. Everything I am learning has value. Nothing is mundane, nothing is useless.

I am building the foundations of what will eventually lead to an independent project and maybe even something more. But for now, I am taking it slowly, taking it one step at a time, and soaking it all in.

Words Come Alive.

Experiences shape the life that you live. I slowly come to think, each day, that this chance — this once in a life time opportunity — really has been a blessing, in a sense. I don’t strictly believe it is a blessing but I do believe that it is fate that I ended up here, that I have made the decisions I have made thus far.

Three weeks ago, when I first came to Northwestern, if you were to ask me what I think I would be doing at the end of the second week of the quarter, I would have told you I would be scrambling to find a lab to join, be swamped with coursework and horribly behind, and lost without friends. But at the end of two weeks, I can say I love this place more than anything, that I want to stay here for as long as I can, and make the most of this opportunity.

Academics aside, I am so lucky to have this chance at research. It just happened that last week, when I attended an informational meeting for a research workshop program I am a part of, as I waited to talk to a facilitator who’s interest lie in genetics (like myself), another facilitator came up to me and struck up a conversation. Research interests came up at one point and it just so happened that the Principle Investigator (PI) she worked for during the summer was looking for an undergraduate student. And it happened that the research this PI is doing is something that is very intriguing and is a field that has a lot of room to grow.

So here I am, two weeks into my last two years of my undergraduate career, spending my time in the research laboratory, playing with Escherichia coli (E. coli) during my free time. It is a post-doctoral student that I get to shadow this quarter, with the opportunity to grow and learn, to get caught up to speed since later on this quarter and for sure starting next quarter, I get to take off on my own project. The topic? I have no idea. I received a couple of papers to read up on what may potentially be the topics of my project but nothing is set in stone. This unknowing breeds my curiosity; it drives me to want to keep working and learning as much as I can, because I can only grow from here.

This post is titled “Words Come Alive”. Why, you may ask? The driving force (and my motivation) for me finding a laboratory to join is that I love to learn but the things I learn, I look to apply. I seek to be pushed to ask questions, to continually learn, and to see how the concepts I learn every 10 weeks translates into actual research. And these first two days, that has happened. Yesterday I got the chance to prepare E. coli with various plasmids which, after treatment with enzymes and other chemicals (which I cannot recall right now), was incubated overnight. When colonies were gather, these were grown in liquid culture for greater quantities.

Today, when I went in to lab after classes ended, the colonies had grown. The plasmids were taken up by the bacteria. All we had to do now was to extract these plasmids. Easy, right?

It is, the concept that is. All you really had to do is open up the bacterial cells and then isolate the plasmid from the rest of the cell contents and the bacterial genome, purify it, and there you go: plasmids. I learned this in class, in my molecular biology class. Yet it doesn’t really make sense on paper (at least for me it didn’t).

But I got to do it today. In about two hours, I created two small vials of plasmids which can be stored for later use. Later use, that is, in experiments, such as when a researcher wants to linearize the plasmids to run them on a gel or insert them into a new genome for further study.

Yes. This is tiring. Yes. This path I choose is exhausting. But yes, this is the most rewarding thing I can think of at this point in my life. I regret no decisions I have made thus far. Things will slowly fall into place, and this dream is worth chasing.

The Health Profession is More Than Just a Physician.

I remember back to my first year as an undergraduate. I spent my Monday afternoons and early evenings on the second floor of the 200 medical building (which happened to be the same building just two floors up where I had surgery that same year). I walked to the end of the building and through the corridors each week, to the back corner where in a small room, cramped up, was filled with life.

There were three physicians. Sometimes four. Sometimes five. There always was at least two fellows or PhD candidates there shadowing and learning. There were two genetic counselors, a registered nurse, a registered dietician, and a social worker.

The same setting each week. Just sometimes, there were more, sometimes less. But each week I went in, I saw a different group of patients. The clinic followed patients for a lifetime; the physician who was the head of the clinic had been following some patients for twenty or thirty years almost. It was a family. Though hectic, I got to see the role each individual played.

Thinking back, it was this experience, this year long opportunity I had during my first year as an undergraduate that really gave me an inside look into how a pediatrics genetics clinic at a major hospital in the nation (the one where the President is taken West of the Mississippi River in the case of an emergency) runs. It gave me insight as to what a social worker, a nurse, a dietician, a genetic counselor, and a physician does. And it also, in a subtle yet defined way, gave me guidance as to the decision I have made now, to the decision I have set my mind and heart on, to the goal that I am climbing to reach.

Experiences like these, subtle yet defining, something I can always fall back on, drive me to become the person I wish to be. They drive me to pursue my dreams and to never, ever give up.

A Process of Self-Discovery

Isn’t that what college is? Isn’t that what life is about?

I left the place I knew for 15 years after I graduated high school in 2010. I left hoping that within two days of landing at UCLA, I would find my niche, and I would discover the person I would be for the rest of my life. Needless to say, it has taken me more than two days and I am still in that process. One thing I can say, though, is that this process is a wild ride, one that I wish to keep on enjoying.

I have been here for two weeks. In these two weeks, I have stepped more out of my comfort zone than I ever thought I would. I have signed up for more campus organizations than I ever knew about at UCLA, I have talked to complete strangers and shared my story about transferring with them, I have applied for positions in various campus organizations that I never even considered before I came here, and I have walked outside in below 50 degree weather with capris on thinking it would be a nice sunny day only to freeze my butt off as I trekked from one end of campus to the other rushing to get to class on time (lesson learned: check the weather BEFORE leaving the room not when you are inside a classroom all warm and toasty). On top of all this, I have found a job where I work as a lab aid for a master’s program student and even considered joining Greek Life here at NU.

All in all, I am glad that I have made the decisions I made. This thought has hit me several times the past couple of weeks that I have been here but it has also been a decision I have doubted countless times as well. There are times when I think I love it here — talking with the students and faculty, being in classes engaged with the material and the professor, learning about the amazing opportunities — but then there are times when I get so homesick, when I miss having my safety blanket that all I want to do is go back in time and not make the decision to apply.

Today, though, I think I finally am okay with the decision I made. No, I am more than okay with it. I am satisfied. It will be a hard road, and I know it. But I am now at the point where one of my best friends, who I text and talk to regularly (since she was supposed to be my roommate but now we aren’t 😦 ), has noticed a change in the way I am talking and thinking and just changing as an individual. It has been extremely hard to leave the close friends I made at UCLA (it helped that some of them went off the graduate school and post-bacc programs so I wasn’t the only one leaving) but then there are the few that are my year or a year older than me that I worked with daily or talked to a lot and shared great conversations with that I wish I could still have with them. I gave up the great weather out in California for the ever changing, unpredictable weather that comes with being right on the shores of Lake Michigan and next to the Windy City. But what I have done is give myself a chance, a chance to do something that I never in a million years would have thought about.

It is in transferring that I am finally starting to understand who I am as an individual. It is in transferring that I am starting to realize that I am worth this life to live and that I have a future ahead of me. I don’t want to give up now. I know I can’t, so in the hardest of times, I remember all the sacrifices my family and friends have made, all the nights I felt worthless as a member of society, and the hurdles I have jumped through to get here.

But this journey will be worth it. It is a long one but it will be worth it.

Science

I love this path that I have chosen but at times it is one of the most stressful aspects of my life. Sometimes I wish I didn’t choose to go down this path but at the end of the day, I am so glad I did.

All I hope is that everything works out. All this effort I am putting into finding a research lab to join, reaching out for help, and joining campus organizations might be taking away from my academics but I hope it is enhancing who I am as a student and individual.

I can only get out what I put in, so I must believe that these hours and hours of research and communication I worth it in the long run.

Working. Researching. Pursuing.

New Beginnings

Typically, before every quarter starts, I write about my goals and aspirations for the quarter at hand. However, this time, it is something different. A new adventure.

This morning, I met with the Biological Sciences program director to fill out paperwork to declare the major. After turning the forms in at the Weinberg college advising office, I felt a sigh of relief; I have an official major at my new university and have a set goal to work towards: a B.S. in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Genetics and Molecular Biology. Lengthy. But exciting.

Tomorrow classes start. Junior year. And with that, it is my chance to start over, with a new goal in mind, aspirations and dreams. It sounds general, it sounds boring, but in truth, it is how I feel.

I have the goal one day of becoming a doctor. Pediatrician, if that is possible. I know it is a long road ahead but I am ready for what lies ahead.

Hit the ground running, as I am told. Just get involved. Research, volunteering, clinical experience, shadowing, clubs, campus organizations. It is all so overwhelming. Yet I am looking forward to all that Evanston and the Windy City have to offer.

So for now, this is where I will leave it at. Classes start tomorrow. Here the adventure begins. Here’s to new adventures and the unknown path that lies ahead.

Pipettes

It seems something minimal, a task anybody can do, but the sheer action of pressing until the first stop to retrieve the sample and then pressing until the second stop to dispel the sample into a new container is a laboratory technique that is invaluable. In my second day going to lab (the past few days I spent at home or at Starbucks editing a 23-page paper), I got to do some hands on work.

That work? Pipetting 2450 microliters of water into small test tubes. Many test tubes. The action was repetitive, might I even say boring. But it took some level of patience and technique in order to ensure the exact amount of liquid — no less, no more, no air — was transferred from one container to the next.

There isn’t anything else that is too exciting. I am still working on editing that paper and looking forward to doing more hands-on work in the lab this coming week. But on a side note, my cousin treated me to get my nails done! And I am the last person who would ever get their nails done — my friends know me as the kid who does anything and everything to avoid being dressed up/dolled up.

Cheers!

“Internship”

Posting for the first time from the other side of the Pacific Ocean!

This summer, I am spending time back at home. However, while my peers are spending their summers wisely taking classes or participating in research programs and internships, I had the option of just sitting around the house letting the summer waste away.

Instead of that, though, I found myself an opportunity to ‘intern’ in a university research lab. I say that it is an “internship” because it isn’t anything officially documented (a program or such) rather it is the direct translation from Chinese. Regardless of what it might be called, it is a great opportunity for me to learn lab techniques that I might not ever learn in the classroom back in the States, and gives me a chance to practice my Chinese as well.

In short, it is pretty neat. I went for the first time today and aside from sitting around reading and studying, I got to see part of a lab experiment. One of the PhD students I ‘shadowed’ today was purifying some of her samples for further experimentation later this week. Though I only saw a bit of the technique (a quite mundane part, might I add), it gave me the chance to see the lab techniques we learn about in class. What’s also interesting (at least I thought it was) is that science doesn’t change, regardless of the language spoken or where the lab is. The technique is the same. The experiments are the same. And thats what draws me to science and medicine; there is a universal language embedded within.

Along with being able to work in the lab and see experiments (and help as well!), I get to assist in writing research articles. The PhD student that I was assigned to by the professor’s that I am working in (this particular student seems to be the one that runs the lab and is in charge of other students) is in the midst of writing a paper and needs it to be translated into english. She asked me to help her out so I am taking the next couple of days to work on that. It is pretty exciting to even be able to lend a hand in the translation/editing of a research article.

All in all, it was a good day in the lab. Tomorrow has been devoted to studying the MCATs at the Starbucks near my cousin’s house. Though I am giving up spending a day at the park with my cousin and her boyfriend, I know it will pay off in the long run. These few days have consisted of endless amounts of joy and shopping and spending time with family that I need time to myself, to study and sort through my thoughts. Since Starbucks is so close, I might as well take advantage of it. Besides, I wouldn’t be the true me if a trip to a coffee shop to study wasn’t involved 🙂

Cheers!

Hello World!

Hello Readers!

This blog is my fifth or sixth attempt at using WordPress as the platform to recording of all my thoughts. After starting this as a way to procrastinate studying for spring final exams, I have finally figured out what I want this blog to be about. Instead of something similar to what my other blogs are about — my personal life, my love of nature, my space to rant and share my experiences — this will document my journey out from my comfort zone and all that I have known.

As you may guess from the picture at the top of blog, I love the Bay Area. Though the picture is not one I took, it does capture what I love about where I live: the beauty, the nature, the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge. I am proud to say I call the Bay Area home, though that is only my home away from home. My home, the one that I associate with love, family, and happiness, is Beijing. Moving away from there at a young age, I yearn to go back whenever I have the chance. But more importantly, I want to make my family proud. I want to show them that I really can do it, that I have it in me, especially at a time when nobody believes in me.

Fast forward a few years to now. I am finally stepping out of my comfort zone and everything I have known for the past five or six years to embark on this journey of which at the end, I hope to be a doctor.

My comfort zone as I have known it, is living close to people that I trust, in an environment that I know like the back of my hand. Growing up in a small, suburban location, going to a high school that provided me with an educational setting where teachers focused less on grades and more on the student and the student’s learning, going off to college meant leaving this comfort.

So I found myself in a new environment, in the big city of Los Angeles, surrounded by people so many people that it felt as if my entire town of 50,000 was crammed into the small campus which is known as UCLA. In the two years that I came to know the campus, I learned not only about a new culture but more importantly about myself. The time I spent there truly made me realize the type of person I am, the type of person that I wish to become, and the type of people that I want to surround myself with.

In the two years I spent at UCLA, I also came to discover that it wasn’t the place for me. I love some of the people I met and I can say that I met one of my best friends in my time there. But it just didn’t bring me the joy and experience I had imagined college to be. Thus I applied to transfer.

If you ask me why I wanted to transfer, all I can offer up is the answer that “it didn’t feel right for me”. At the end of this journey which lasted over half a year, I now am no longer a student at UCLA. Come this fall, I will be heading out to Evanston, IL to attend Northwestern University, a proud and scared Wildcat.

Why these mixed emotions? I am extremely happy that NU has accepted me as a transfer student. It is where I thought I would go out of high school but wasn’t able to. Now, as a transfer student, the stakes are so much higher, the expectations greater. Yet I am so thankful for this opportunity, because it is the chance that I am going to take and run with.

Aside from this drastic change in where I will be completing my last two years of university, despite the fact that I will be moving to a part of the country that is completely foreign to me, the most daunting change of all is my decision to pursue medicine as a career. For as long as my close friends from high school have known me, I was the one person who studied science (and loved it) that refused to declare herself as ‘pre-med’. I never let anybody convince me that I should pursue medical school and become a doctor. Yet in the last couple of weeks since my spring quarter ended, I have decided to pursue medicine and embark on this daunting yet thrilling adventure of going down the path of wanting and wishing to be a doctor. The type of doctor, I haven’t given much thought to. What seems appealing is pediatric oncology, or pediatrics, or genetics. I don’t know. I need to let this drastic change sink in before I can really understand where my heart lies.

There are many blogs out there that document personal journeys, individuals who have embarked on the path of becoming a doctor and sharing their story, so thank you for reading my blog. This blog, hopefully, will document the path that I take, the fears and raw emotions I experience along the way. It is my way to document and chronicle the journey that I take, the adventures I go on in the process of reaching my goals, of pursuing my dreams.

It has been a long time coming, an emotional roller coaster. But it has been worth every moment. And now, I hope to share the rest of the journey with you.

So from me, the nerdy, baseball loving foodie, to you, my reader, enjoy.

~Gia