Uncertain Airspace: Changing career paths is disorienting and exhilarating
Pursuing a new career makes PhD student Jonathan Wosen feel like a baby goose—and he loves it.
Sometimes I ask people, “if you weren’t studying biology, what would you do?”
At first, they’re taken aback, and I don’t blame them. PhD students are self-selected for a certain kind of persistent, focused thinking; that’s what it takes to become the world’s leading expert on your thesis project. We are as deeply immersed in our work as a fish in water. That makes asking a graduate student to consider a different field of study a lot like asking a fish to imagine life on dry land.
Initially, there’s some flailing of fins and gasping for air, but the answers come.
“I think I would do computer science, or engineering.”
“Maybe chemistry, or biochemistry. Is that too close to biology to count?”
“It would be fun to try math.”
In my experience, the responses are all variations on a single theme: most students would opt for some other STEM field. But my answer doesn’t fit the mold.
I would go into journalism.
From an early age, I was awed by newscasters’ power to shape my perception of the world. With a single report, they could expose corruption, challenge governments, and make me care about people and places I had never heard of. These experiences left me with a deep interest in how news stories are told as well as what and whose stories are told.
Nevertheless, science remained my primary passion. Ever since elementary school, when I told my principal that I wanted to be a lab technician, I’ve never considered another career. That’s pretty odd given that there are no scientists in my family, who emigrated from Ethiopia in the 80s before taking up low-wage jobs in east San Diego. I chalk it up to all the hours spent watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Buswhen I wasn’t watching the news.
The logic behind applying to graduate school was simple: I wanted to be a scientist, scientists have PhDs, and therefore I should get one. If only what followed had been so straightforward. Progress on my project, which involves growing finicky stem cells to learn about celiac disease, has been excruciatingly slow. I love learning about science and sharing my knowledge with others, but the day-to-day minutiae of my research project does wear me down.
Last year, during my third year of graduate school, I was constantly anxious and stressed, and, worst of all, didn’t tell anyone that I was struggling. I felt obligated to stick to the script I had written for myself: the boy who dreamt of becoming a scientist and never stopped until he reached his goal. My family and friends had bought into this narrative too, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Plus, deep down, I still hoped to become a professor and help diversify academia; it was difficult to think that there would be one fewer black faculty member.
At first, I was ambivalent about pursuing a career in science communication, and kept telling myself that I should focus on research. I was interested enough to take a course, though, and there I found a community of students, professors, and professionals who cared as much about public outreach as I did. Part of the reason I first got interested in biomedical research was because of the public benefits of studying health and disease. I realized that empowering people with an understanding of major scientific discoveries was another form of public service.
After feeling siloed within my own project, it was refreshing to hear journalists talk about reading up on a wide range of scientific discoveries and having the freedom to ask basic questions. Throughout the course, I could feel my natural excitement and scientific curiosity start to return. I checked out books from the library on science writing, contacted editors for freelancing opportunities, and shared my aspirations with friends and family. So far, their responses have all been positive.
So that’s where I’m at right now. I think that finishing my PhD will open new and better opportunities, so that’s the plan. In the meanwhile, I intend to get as much communications experience as I can—blogging, podcasting, and writing for publications in the coming years.
In eastern Greenland (trust me, this is relevant), barnacle geese nest in towering, rocky cliffs that keep young goslings away from predators but also away from food. Eventually, the goslings must leave their nests for the green fields below. There’s only one problem: they can’t fly. What they do instead is literally jump off the cliff, spreading their tiny, fluffy bodies to create drag and desperately try to steer themselves towards a (relatively) soft landing. It’s a wonder that any of them survive. In a sense, I feel like one of those goslings right now. Suspended in uncertain airspace, embracing the unknown, steering myself towards a better future.
Oh, and hoping that I don’t crash on the way down.
Jonathan Wosen is an immunology PhD student at Stanford. You can expect more writing from this young gosling as he learns to navigate the world of science communication.
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Many of the young, chemistry-based companies C&EN is tracking made headlines in the past year
Finding Job Satisfaction as a Humanitarian Researcher
Panagiotis Vagenas left Yale University to advise a non-profit on research design and quality. What did you do before Yale? I’m from Greece originally. In 1996 — when I was 17 — I moved to London, UK. I studied biochemistry for my degree and did a PhD in immunology. When I graduated I moved to the Population Council labs at the Rockefeller University in New York to start my postdoc. What did you study? I worked on basic research in HIV. What’s always motivated me is trying to help people — to have a meaningful career in that sense. So in summer 2010 I moved to Yale School of Public Health and did a master’s in public health (MPH), and went on to join the faculty at the Yale School of Medicine in 2013. And then you moved to your current job. Yes – I’d just applied for a K01 grant which didn’t get awarded at the time, which was a big shock. So I figured I should do something different, and what still motivated me was making an impact on people’s lives. So I found the job I have now with Project Concern International (PCI). Where did you get the motivation to make an impact on people’s lives? Really I grew up in an environment that was like that. My mum’s a psychiatrist and my dad’s a civil engineer in the public sector, so while they’re not doing the kind of work I’m doing, it’s always been for the public good. And then I loved biology at school so that was the start of the path that got me here. What does PCI do? Our mission is to enhance health, end hunger, overcome hardship. It’s a really broad mission that wants to help people in the developing world lead better lives. I think a lot of organisations like PCI – which is funded primarily by the US government but also from other sources – appreciate research more and more in tracking the impact and sustainability of their work. Could you give me an example? I was recently in Ethiopia where myself and other members of my team designed a sustainability study for an initiative we ran to empower women in the region. The project ended six years ago for PCI, but women are still meeting and benefitting from our work there. It’s not the old method of development – hand outs, a short project in the field – we want to go into these programmes knowing the impact is sustained. How are you finding the head office in San Diego? I’m enjoying the outdoors culture here in California. Everybody’s out; everybody’s running and hiking and enjoying the beaches year-round. I meet a lot of people from work. My parents came to visit last April and they really enjoyed it. San Diego is paradise. You can find more of this interview here.
LZTR1 is a regulator of RAS ubiquitination and signaling
In genetic screens aimed at understanding drug resistance mechanisms in chronic myeloid leukemia cells, inactivation of the cullin 3 adapter protein-encoding leucine zipper-like transcription regulator 1 (LZTR1) gene led to enhanced mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway activity and reduced sensitivity to tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Knockdown of the Drosophila LZTR1 ortholog CG3711 resulted in a Ras-dependent gain-of-function phenotype. Endogenous human LZTR1 associates with the main RAS isoforms. Inactivation of LZTR1 led to decreased ubiquitination and enhanced plasma membrane localization of endogenous KRAS (V-Ki-ras2 Kirsten rat sarcoma viral oncogene homolog). We propose that LZTR1 acts as a conserved regulator of RAS ubiquitination and MAPK pathway activation. Because LZTR1 disease mutations failed to revert loss-of-function phenotypes, our findings provide a molecular rationale for LZTR1 involvement in a variety of inherited and acquired human disorders.