Copyright © 2020 Tanvi Banota
My usual answer is resoundingly clear - no. I loathe the idea of fate and destiny and giving up control of my future.
But three years ago today, I was introduced to research and the incredible people in my lab, and it's been hard to imagine how my life might have been if not for that moment.
As a high schooler, seeking out and completing a summer research experience was something I was expected to do. It was right there on the checklist for "How to Get into an Ivy," nestled between being valedictorian and curing cancer. (I kid.)
And so I did it. In my sophomore year and my junior year I applied to competitive summer research programs for high schoolers, vaguely interested in research but having no clue what that really meant. The closest image I had of a scientist was Dr. Alice Howland from the novel Still Alice, in which she spent the majority of her time suffering from Alzheimer's and teaching classes. (In fact, the idea of teaching was my original draw to science and academia.)
And so I didn't quite understand the role of a bench scientist, let alone the idea of graduate school and getting a PhD, when I showed up at the Laskin Lab one day in July after my junior year of high school.
It's hard to describe in words without feeling the need to go on and on, but suffice to say that I was swept up with the science and wonder of it all. I loved the graduate student I was working with, loved the idea of the research I was contributing to, loved being there on the bench doing actual science. I had never before envisioned myself as a scientist (maybe intellectually, but not truly) and I was starting to realize how much the world of science offered and what it meant to be a scientist. And how much I wanted to fit into that world.
My summer went by much faster than I would have hoped, and everything I had learned not only about my field of research but about the idea of doing research in general was causing a lot of internal turmoil for me, as I tried to figure out the role research would play in my future career. Because if I learned anything that summer, it was that research had to become a meaningful part of my life moving forward.
As someone who had wanted to be a physician almost their entire life, I was wrought with stress over how I could continue to do research, whether I wanted to do a PhD, whether I wanted to one day become a principal investigator. I learned that most professors that taught and held faculty positions were PhDs, and not MDs, even if they taught in a medical school. I struggled with the idea of letting go of medicine just because I had this insane passion for teaching, and this newfound passion for research. I wanted to do all three.
But then I found the idea of academic medicine, where MDs saw patients, but also taught and did research on the side. And through that, I found MD/PhDs. Physician-scientists who ran their own labs, saw patients related to their research, and held teaching and leadership positions at academic institutions. And that seemed to be the solution to all my problems (except for the whole, eight more years of school thing, but I loved school anyway, so it didn't seem like much of a con).
I warmed up to the idea of either being an "MD-only" physician-scientist, or an MD-PhD. I thought more about the colleges I was applying to and how they would support my research goals. I thought about combined bachelors/masters programs that would let me do even more research. I thought about the combined BS/MD programs I was applying to and whether or not they had a way I could apply internally to their MD/PhD programs. Looking back on it, I was considering MD/PhD more seriously than I perhaps should have, especially with only a summer of high school research under my belt.
But, the chips fell as they did, and after quite possibly the most mentally exhausting and stressful few months I had ever had, I ended up committing to Rutgers. Shortly after my decision, I reached out to my PI from that summer experience and let her know, thanking her for my letter of rec once again, but this time also asking if I could come back to lab as a volunteer that summer, and work with my graduate student again.
I was honestly surprised when she said yes, partly by the fact that she had remembered me at all and the fact that it was mid-May, usually late in the "process" for reaching out to PIs.
But once again, almost exactly a year after my first day in lab, I found myself back, this time with the responsibility of teaching three high school students (who were there through the very program that had instigated my love for research) how to do an assay I hadn't done in 9 months.
I loved it so, so much. I loved being back in lab. I loved doing the science. I loved the new people in my lab! I loved my whole new renovated lab. And I loved loved loved having that sense of independence and ability, where I was entrusted to mentor and teach these high school students. At that point, it all just... clicked. I clicked so much with my lab, with my research, with the people! I can never underscore how much the people I was working with changed my decision to come back to that lab and to continue to pursue science. They were amazing and friendly, and more than that, they were strong female role models that showed me how to be a woman in science, and a minority woman in science.
Before I even realized it, it was the end of August, and my first semester of college was fast approaching, and my graduate student was begging me to stay in the lab, and I was trying to figure out words to tell her that I couldn't even imagine doing anything but that.
My graduate student and PI helped fight to get me research for credit that semester - something only offered to sophomores and above. I started understanding how to weave working in the lab and my classes together. I had set aside two days for research, but I found I couldn't help myself from coming in a third day every week when I didn't have any classes.
Research became my identity, almost my whole identity, especially because so few freshman were doing research. I was in lab every minute I could possibly be. And I only fell in love with it more. Everything was slowly clicking into place, not only the science behind the research I was doing and the impact of that science, but how I needed to go to grad school and train as a scientist, almost more than I needed to train as a physician. Even just after that second summer in the lab I had more or less made up my mind to pursue an MD/PhD, but every minute in the lab after only solidified that fact.
And I'm writing this now, having not been in lab since March because of COVID, missing it and missing the people and suffering from pipette withdrawal. And realizing how much I have changed since three years ago when I first started this research journey. How my future career goals have changed. How the research I've done in this lab has changed my future research goals and interests - which was something I was so resolute about, coming into college. How the people I've met and colleagues that have become friends have changed me as a person.
There are just so many more amazing things about these experiences I cannot put into words, so many little memories where I catch myself grinning as I reminisce, so many feelings that are associated with each of those moments. I can't truly express how much my life has changed since that one summer where I tried my hand at research, just because I thought I "had to." It's been a crazy ride since, and there are so many times where I stop and think back to certain pivotal moments in the journey and think "if I had just made one small different decision, would I even be where I am today?"
What if I hadn't applied to that summer program in high school? What if I hadn't been matched with a mentor and with a lab that I clicked so obviously with? What if I hadn't been working under my amazing graduate student, who at this point is almost like an older sister to me? What if I hadn't sent that handwritten thank-you card to my PI after my first summer? What if I hadn't decided to email my PI in my senior year of high school to ask to come back to the lab? What if I would have joined another lab in college? What if I went to a different college? What if I hadn't presented my research at that one conference? What if I hadn't decided to apply to that summer funding fellowship? What if I hadn't pushed to submit a particular abstract for a particular conference? What if I hadn't been at the right place at the right time, where everything almost just fell into place around me?
And so, I still do not believe in the idea of "everything happens for a reason" but I can't be more glad that all of these things happened the way they did.
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