Thursday, July 2, 2009

Exhausted and Refreshed

Guest Post from Maheen Shermohammed, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute undergraduate fellow in the neurobiology lab of Nicole Calakos:

I got back from lab today at 8PM. 8PM... and I started at 9AM. There have been very few times in my life that I have come home as exhausted as I have some of the days in these past two weeks. Now granted, I've never really had a job before. Still, this whole research thing isn't easy, and I didn't really expect it to be.

Part of me (the workaholic part) feels great coming home too tired to move and feeling like I really put in a day of hard work. But there's another part of me that keeps questioning why I'm doing this. To be honest, I don't really like pipetting and running gels in a lab all day. It's really cool to learn new techniques and try them once or twice, but they get old and tedious. I'm still not positive if research is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and there are days in lab that make me very hesitant to pursue it.

But then I talk to my P.I. She makes no effort to convince me that research can be a great career; she doesn't have to. Whenever she talks about our projects, her eyes light up. It's so refreshing. She sat with me today for a good hour helping me troubleshoot and discussing what directions we could take my project from here. As I talked to her, just barely keeping up with the conversation, I felt this sense of nerdy exhilaration that I haven't felt in a long time and that I've never been afraid to admit. It's something I can only describe as that unique feeling in your mind when it's trying to figure something out. When it's encountering something that it hasn't quite dealt with before, but has just barely enough capacity and resources to handle.

I know I have a very romantic idea of research. Like many people, it's really the concepts that interest me. How a protein folds correctly- so cool. Trying to figure out if a protein you just expressed is folded correctly- annoying. I get impatient. And not really because things don't work right. Sometimes troubleshooting is a blast. But I get impatient to move on, get one step closer to the answer, learn just a little bit more than I knew before. I want to get the stuff that people already know how to do over with (digestions, expressions, gels, etc.), I want to stop feeling like I'm just going through the motions, and I want to get to that part that makes research so appealing (and terrifying), to that part of innovation, that part of going somewhere that no one has gone before and being the first one to see where it takes you.

My P.I. knows the techniques better than anyone else. She had to learn all that stuff before she could pretty much just work with the concepts like she does now. I see it as kind of paying your dues. Research is dealing with something that's always new, which makes it very challenging. But I don't think it's that challenge I'm afraid of. I figure if I can get to the point where I need to face it, I'll be able to. It's those dues that I'm not sure I'll be able to handle. But hey, I've to try right?

Adios for now!