The SEA-PHAGES Symposium: Phages, Phriends, and Phun

poster

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.

Graham with students

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.

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3 Responses to The SEA-PHAGES Symposium: Phages, Phriends, and Phun

  1. emilyjanefisher says:

    You can use that bad interaction as a motivator, but you can also blame the person who was rude to you for the way he handled it. It’s not cool to judge the career goals of students.

  2. Pingback: The SEA-PHAGES Symposium: Phages, Phriends, and Phun | jhublogs

  3. Maurice Moriarity says:

    By your mid-thirties, if you have dedicated yourself the way most over achievers do to a given field of specialization, it is inevitable that you will begin confronting burnout. By your early forties, you will realize and come to accept the limitations of mortality, at which time, gradually, your chief concern will be your contribution and legacy to others. Only, if you have given everything of yourself to a specialization, you may find it difficult to impossible to relate your love of your knowledge with those who were in your place before you set out on your path. So,.. always be sure to invest a part of yourself in a shared sense of humanity, the common fabric of life. Good luck.

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