The scene was twilight in a public park, during the summer of 1992. My friends and I, who had recently graduated high school, were enjoying the swings and eagerly talking about the future. I had visited Washington, D.C., where I had learned about some current frontiers in molecular biology. I remember pumping my legs back and forth, pushing the swing higher, as I talked about my dream career. I would become a “gene jock!” My group would find the best way to introduce healthy versions of genes into people who had disease-causing alleles. Just imagine what would become possible when humanity gained the ability to modify our own genomes!
The next three years of college helped set me on a path toward biomedical research. I arrived at the University of Arkansas with a substantial amount of college credit, courtesy of the Advanced Placement and CLEP programs. My major in biological sciences carried me through courses in genetics, virology, and molecular physiology. My plan was still on course as I entered my junior year, where I traveled to France to be immersed in a research lab focused on post-translational control of proteins.
Once there, I hit a terrible roadblock. “Wet bench” biology carried little appeal for me. I spent my time maintaining cell cultures, using electroporation to add DNA to cells, and pouring SDS-PAGE gels for protein separation. Instead of feeling energized by this work, I rapidly developed a sense of drudgery about it, and I felt like I was of little value to the research team I was assisting. My plan of spending the rest of my life in the research lab collapsed.
My hobby of computer programming came to my rescue. When I returned to the United States after a semester abroad, I did a “co-op” semester with G.D. Searle Pharmaceuticals in Skokie, IL. My temp job as a scientific applications programmer reminded me that I had good skills and could take on difficult tasks with success. When I returned to Arkansas for my senior year, I added a last-minute minor in computer science. When I graduated in 1996, I matriculated at a Molecular Biotechnology department at the University of Washington that explicitly encouraged students in the area of bioinformatics. For the first time my training in biology would be paired with my hobby in computer programming.
I eventually made it; I have my dream job as a tenured professor in a major research university! Now that I’m here, though, I have discovered that I am experiencing some of the same unrest that accosted me in that lab in France. This blog is my attempt to unfold that experience for a broader audience, along with my emerging response. I hope it will be useful for others who encounter similar struggles with their careers.
Thank you for visiting!