Author: Marvin Gee

My path to graduate school: medicine vs. research

After leaving the California Institute of Technology with a BS degree in biology, I took a relaxed summer in preparation for what is going to be the next 5, 6, or maybe even 7 years of my life – graduate school.

The first step to tackling graduate school starts well before you step through the front doors. It starts in your undergraduate years when you find your passion. For me, that passion was in the sciences. Aided by my parents’ urging towards a career in science, I participated in local science fairs and started research in the latter years of high school at the National Cancer Institute. There, I truly had my first taste of biological research. However, I didn’t expect that I would ever end up in graduate school.

National Cancer Institute at Frederick, MD.

National Cancer Institute at Frederick, MD. Source.

Despite only having experience in research, I never considered it as a career choice. Biology was something that I excelled at, and I knew that I was interested in helping people through medicine. These dreams motivated me to want to become a doctor from a young age. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of as many as I could touch. I was so focused on that path that I never considered any others– blinded to other careers, especially those not in science. To understand how a career in medicine would be, I chose to do an internship at the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA.

Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA. Source.

For 6 weeks, I arrived at 7:00AM to doctors checking on patients and reading charts. I rotated through different wards including pediatrics, neurosurgery, and pathology. I remember that, on several occasions, I had to stand for 6 or more hours watching surgeries. The doctors told me that they had done the same surgery several times that week for many weeks in the month and many months in the year. But, of course, not all the rotations were so repetitive. My experiences in internal medicine were probably most interesting because I was able to meet different patients every day and see doctors’ diagnoses and treatments. However, what I found after the 6 weeks was most telling about the outlook of my future – I wanted to be a scientist.

For the last 3 weeks of my internship, most of my thoughts led to returning to the laboratory bench. I realized that leading up to this point in my life, I was being trained to be a scientist, yet I was so blinded by the goals set by my parents and myself. I realized I yearned for the creativity that comes with research and the flexibility to take projects in whichever direction was most interesting. The natural curiosity I had about the world around me was repressed by, from what I thought, the monotonous routine of being a medical doctor. Even more telling was the fact that I was at one of the world’s leading research institutions. It’s almost as if my actions knew what I was meant to do, but my mind had yet to accept.

As a young student in middle school and high school, I lacked the wisdom to understand that I should question my motives for wanting to be a medical doctor. Equally or even more important than using medicine to treat patients is to discover those medicines, and that is almost exclusively the job of the scientists. It took me several years to realize that researchers could be as helpful to people as a medical doctor.

Now that I’m in graduate school, I’m glad to be where I am. I go to work every day wondering how to take my science to the next level and think about biology in ways that I had never before. Every day seems like a new problem to tackle, and I appreciate that about research. I realized that being a medical doctor was not something that matched my interests, although it can certainly be the right career for those looking for patient contact and a direct impact on patients’ lives.


Marvin is a PhD candidate at Stanford University in Immunology. He was an editor-in-chief at the Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal. See it at Follow on twitter @Marvzipan.

Category: The Student Blog | 11 Comments

Research: not a job, but a lifestyle

You grow up learning about the different career choices that you can have. There’s the usual – fireman, police officer, or doctor. You don’t expect to hear about the researcher.

As a kid, I watched my parents do the typical 9 to 5 job. My dad, a nuclear engineer, and my mom, a cashier at the local supermarket were out of the house and at work by the time I was heading to school. They didn’t quite follow the 9 to 5 rule, in the sense that they left earlier in order to come home earlier, but their hours were pretty routine. I always assumed that, because my parents always had a regular schedule, that all jobs must be like that.

When I began doing research at the National Cancer Institute in my hometown, as part of my high school experience, I experienced first-hand how the 9 to 5 rule didn’t apply there. Some days, I would spend just a few hours working in lab, and some days, I would find myself heading home at 7 pm after a half day of school. I hardly imagined research being so time-consuming. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my time in lab. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Most days, I wouldn’t even realize that I was leaving at dusk.

In the three years after freshmen year of college, I spent my time balancing classes and laboratory work, as I did in high school. It wasn’t uncommon that I contemplated whether I should finish my problem set due tomorrow or finish the cloning that I needed to do for lab first. And more often than not, I found myself having midnight “lab parties” with the other undergraduate students. It wasn’t until the next day that I would question my career choices, but I was generally too busy thinking about what needed to be accomplished that day to complain.

Now that I’m in graduate school at Stanford University, I’m finding it much easier to have a healthier lab and class schedule, just due to the lack of classes taken in graduate school. My time now is far more flexible than ever before, and I can spend more time delving into the research. I appreciate the fact that I can think more about my project on MHCTCR interactions, learn more about this immunological field, and observe other interesting research that is happening.

Stanford University looking down Palm Drive.

Stanford University looking down Palm Drive.

Just a week ago, the Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine were announced, and two current Stanford faculty, Michael Levitt and Thomas C. Sudhöf, celebrated with colleagues and students. The party for professor Sudhöf was situated in the foyer, just down the hall from where I worked. It was a surreal experience to watch people gather around with cameras and excitedly taking pictures of the man whose fame exploded over night. Despite the chaos, I distinctly remember how he felt about his prize. He mentioned how excited he was that his research, performed over a decade ago, earned him a spot among the greatest scientists in the world. However, despite the time that has passed, he is still excited about his research today. Every new discovery, big or small, is exciting as the last discovery. You rarely see professors retire from their positions, and if they do, they still spend the majority of their time involved with research in some way.

Stanford Professors and 2013 Nobel Prize recipients in Chemistry (Left: MichaeL Levitt) and Physiology or Medicine (Right: Thomas C. Sudhöf). Adapted from source.

Stanford Professors and 2013 Nobel Prize recipients in Chemistry (Left: MichaeL Levitt) and Physiology or Medicine (Right: Thomas C. Sudhöf). Adapted from source.

This is a general theme in research. Those who enjoy research don’t see doing research as work. Instead, it’s a lifestyle. You may not work the typical 9 to 5 job that others do, but that’s because research shouldn’t be seen as a job. Just because you leave the lab, doesn’t mean that your work is over for the day. Instead, your work travels with you, and you constantly think about your research at home while you eat dinner, or while you take a shower, or when you wind down for the day lying in your bed. When you see research in this light, the discoveries, whether big or small, are what drive your passion for research.

When I leave lab, I’m not really done with work for the day. I realize now that the time I spent in high school and in my undergraduate years doing research was well spent. I didn’t do it because I needed to do it. I didn’t do it because it was a means of income, especially since there are far better careers to earn money. I did research because I enjoyed the creativity and the problem solving. I’ve never felt that I have had a “real” job, since all I’ve done, at the core of it, is explore the biological world with complex techniques and incredible technologies. What’s most surprising in this line of work is that there is always something new to learn. And, because of that, I doubt I’ll consider my research as complete, that is, something that I’ll leave behind at the end of the day. I’ll never be done with my research; but, that is part of its charm.







Marvin is a PhD candidate at Stanford University in Immunology. He was an editor-in-chief at the Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal. See it at Follow on twitter @Marvzipan.

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