If you had told me last summer that the Phages course I had signed up for on a whim would go on to change the course of my life, I would have been surprised. If you had told me that one night at a symposium about those phages would make me rethink the life plan I had established seven years prior, I would have been skeptical. And yet, there is nothing that anyone could have told me that would prepare me for the experience I had. In the ~48 hours I spent in Ashburn, Virginia at the HHMI Janelia Farm Research Campus, I got to listen to my superiors AND my peers discuss research I never could have dreamed of. I got to present the research we all did at Johns Hopkins. I got to laugh. I got to cry. I got to make so many friends, from all across the country. And it changed my life.
Before leaving Baltimore for Ashburn, I had no idea what to expect. I had never participated in a science fair, let alone been to a symposium and presented my own research. I found myself worried, about not knowing what to do, about not interacting with anyone, about not having any fun at all. Of course, as is usually the case, I had nothing at all to worry about.
I had an incredible time at the SEA-PHAGES Symposium, and as I write this blog post, a few hours after returning to Baltimore, I keep hopefully looking around to see some of my new friends in the library with me. I miss them, and I miss the experience. I miss the fun of learning interspersed with developing friendships and making connections. (Of course, we already vowed to have a reunion when we inevitably all win awards for our research in a few years) And yet, it was the worst part of the Symposium that made me appreciate it as much as I do.
When my colleague Emily and I stood at our poster, ready to present our information about our phages, Stark and Kloppinator, and the processes we went through, I felt a little inferior after seeing what some of my peers had attempted and accomplished. But for the most part, I felt confident that I was capable of explaining what we had done; it was us who had done the research, after all. That feeling quickly evaporated when I started being questioned about the Stark genome and its CRISPR protein. I admittedly didn’t understand the protein and didn’t pretend to, but I was still repeatedly questioned about the system and why it would be in a bacteriophage, when it’s primary function is to defend bacteria against phage. The drawn-out experience continued to get worse as it came to attack my personal life goals, and I can honestly say that I have only been more humiliated once in my life. I could blame the man who had drilled me, say that he had been awful for doing such a thing. But, while I disagree with the way he approached the situation, at the heart of it all (excluding the personal attacks), it was my fault for not better understanding the research I was presenting, or even the research I had done.
Throughout the weekend, my lack of understanding was much more prevalent than I would care to admit. I listened to students and researchers present information, and while I could tell that they were doing incredible and innovative things, a majority of the details were lost on me. Between unknown vocabulary and misunderstood processes, I spent most of the symposium wondering why in the world I was there when I clearly couldn’t compete with the people around me; I couldn’t even understand them. But it invoked in me a fierce desire to become like them, to understand something, anything in the world of research as well as they did. I liked research before, but I left the symposium with a desire to get involved as soon as possible, in any way I could. Because one of the many things I learned was that it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing; it matters that you’re doing something, working towards better understanding something, and that you give it every ounce of effort you have. I learned that at least a year later than I should have, but it’s definitely better late than never.
I left Baltimore as a prospective Neuroscience major with my seven-year-old plans of graduating in four years, heading straight to medical school, straight to residency, straight to becoming a surgeon. I returned to Baltimore less than forty-eight hours later as a prospective Biology major with a shaky desire to maybe enter medical school one day when I’m ready. I still have a while to figure out exactly what I want to do, and I’ll continue to think about it while studying abroad in Japan next year. But I’ve got future research opportunities open to me, a strong desire to immerse myself within it, and not make the same mistake twice. And as long as I have that, I’m sure that everything else will fall into place.