Inspired by the book ‘The Ph.D. Grind’ – a personal memoir of Prof. Philip Guo’s Ph.D. journey, I thought I could also use this fine summer morning to jot down my undergrad years at UQ, while sipping a refreshing cold brew that goes perfectly with the bitter and sweet days. But overall, I am proud to say that the past four years have been the most transformative, rewarding and productive time so far, and most of it was coffee-free! Funny how I turned from hating coffee to training myself to like it for social purposes, to gladly paying 5 bucks a day to maintain this sacred ritual (oh what has science done to me >.<)
While many people see me as an inspiring international student who is extroverted, proactive, confident and academically successful, I certainly was not like this, and still, am not as legendary as some people may perceive. Let me just say this out loud, I was not born smart or anything. In fact, I grew up feeling I was always doing worse than others, and no matter how hard I studied, some ‘smart kids’ would just out-perform me with their ‘intrinsic talent’. To make things worse, my maths teacher said that I was not meant to be good at maths, and that some girls just don’t get it! Apparently logics and maths are some kind of life brain talent that boys are better at. Of course, I was deeply hurt by it and avoided maths at all cost, which actually led me to favor English heavily over other subjects and end up studying abroad. So I guess in hindsight, my maths teacher did do something good for me. In middle school when I finally found out that a so-called genius who seemingly did not need to study at all in school to be No.1 was actually secretly pulling many nights, I learned my first life-changing lesson: DO NOT BUY INTO THE SCENE THAT SOME PEOPLE CAN JUST SUCCEED EFFORTLESSLY, WORK HARD TO GET YOUR GOALS! From then on, I realized the only way to prove myself and others that I could become ‘something’ is to work hard, and never be shady about it. I do not want others to feel like I was just born smart because it is neither inspiring or true!
When I first came to Australia, I was under 18 and very shy. My English vocab was good but I wasn’t brave enough to use it. I saw others with more broken English boldly practicing with locals, I knew that’s what I needed to do too but I have always been too self-conscious of others’ judgment. The first year was all about building confidence for me, I missed out on many good opportunities because I was scared to leave my comfort zone. Eventually, I missed out on the scholarship to cover half of my uni tuition fee simply because I assumed I wouldn’t be good enough. I knew it existed, I knew deep down I had a very high chance, but I still told myself ‘probably not’. Once the deadline passed and I truly lost it, I started blaming myself. Once I saw others getting it, I couldn’t let the regrets go. This is the event that finally made me decide to be brave and never let the next opportunity lapse right in front of my eyes. Seriously, you often learn the most important lessons the hard way!
First semester at UQ studying science was quite a stressful time for me. The subject I hated the most was BIOL1040. I dreaded the biweekly pracs because I had to work with two other local students. They were actually nice people, but most of the time I just felt there was a cultural barrier and made myself uncomfortable. Time after time, the other two started talking to themselves and I was even more left out. The group project was also done in three and I absolutely dreaded group work! I liked to finish everything one week before the deadline to be safe, but you know most people in first year like the last-minute adrenaline rush. I was anxious most of the semester, but I studied so hard and survived with a straight 7 (highest grade for all 4 subjects). That was a nice boost in my self-confidence that even though I struggled socially, I managed to get the results I wanted. Next, I just needed to work on fitting into the new culture more. Funny thing – I became a tutor for BIOL1040 HAHA and repeated the same pracs I hated so much many more times, except now as a tutor. I still can’t believe it! Every prac I teach now reminds me how far I’ve come on this journey.
The second semester was when I started to grow a lot. There were 3 events/people that were really inspiring for me. As much as I disliked BIOL1040, I absolutely enjoyed the last two lecturers by Brian on developmental biology, I was like “Why do we get the most interesting part of the course at the end and there is only 2 lectures??”. Anyways, I signed up to the third year course by Brian, even though I was still a first-year student because I couldn’t wait, and that was the best decision ever. Everything in DEVB3001 was so fascinating – the intricate processes of embryo development from a single cell is mind-blowing! At the same time, I was also taking Genetics and the course coordinator James was such a friendly lecturer. He said in the first lecture that if we’d like any advice on trying out research or anything career-related, he’d be happy to help out. I don’t know if anyone else took that seriously, but I thought ‘wow, that sounds like a not-to-miss’ opportunity! I was really shy still, but reminding myself how silly it was to miss out on the scholarship the year before, I pushed myself to draft an email to James and clicked on the ‘Sent’ button after hours of contemplation. I wrote a whole page of questions, hoping that he would just answer them, but instead, James came back with something like ‘OK, sounds like a lot of questions, why don’t we grab a coffee together.’ O.M.G. I have never sat down with a lecturer privately before, I have never even had a coffee before! My heart lost a beat just reading that, I never thought I’d have to take a massive leap out of my comfort zone with that email! I should’ve kept it short! After a massive panic, I thought I’d be really rude if I just ignored the email, plus I couldn’t find any legit excuses to turn him down either. Fine. I’ll go.
The meeting day finally came, I was so anxious that I couldn’t find the place. When I finally got there, James was so casual and showed me around the lab while making some jokes with his Ph.D. student. ‘WOW, so this is what research is like? Kinda fun? I wish I could get a supervisor like that?” – I was astounded and immediately made a wish. At the coffee, I told James that I liked Brian’s lectures and he encouraged me to just reach out to him and do a summer research project. He even taught me how to ask smart questions at the end of the class, draft an initial email (cold-emailing) and read up (stalk) on his research. In the end, I felt like I just got so much insider wisdom during a ‘casual coffee catch-up’ and the world was mine to go get it.
Returning to what I said about doing DEVB3001 in my first year was the best decision, it was very important because of the perfect timing with James’s ‘insider wisdom’. The next day after the coffee catch-up I had Brian’s lecturer again, and I immediately put his words into action. I paid extra attention in class, stayed back to ask a question, and at the end of the question I said I really liked his content and would keep an eye out for his lab projects. I wasn’t brave enough to just say I’d like to do a project with you yet, but it was a massive first step for me – at least making Brian know who I was. That same night, I was over-the-moon excited for my small win and emailed James to say ‘Thank you! I did it!’. James got back to me with a simple line of encouragement ‘No worries, You deserve it’. It might be such a small thing for James to help a clueless first year out, but was absolutely critical for me! I don’t think James even remembers me now, but Thank you for sharing your insider wisdom so generously.
You might think that this story will continue with me finally getting into Brian’s lab, but often, once your eyes are open for opportunities, you see them everywhere. When Brian’s module finished, we had Linda to teach three lectures on brain development. Oh boy, even better and more fascinating! I never gave much thought into the brain, but she really convinced me that the brain is the most complex and fascinating system to study. I immediately went home and read up on her research like James advised, and at the end of her third lecture, I approached her for questions and expressed my gratitude for blowing my mind away. Thanks to my ‘stalking’, I knew she was advertising for summer research projects, so I asked about it. Her eyes lit up when she knew that I actually put in the effort to read up on her research and lab website (which demonstrates initiative and genuine interest). We walked out of the lecture room together and on the way, she encouraged me to send through my transcript, and look into a program called ‘AsPins’.
So much was happening every day during that time, it was really like discovering a whole new world. I became a lot more confident bit by bit and was super excited that Linda got back to me saying Jens (post-doc) from the lab was willing to take me on as a summer student. Hooray! My first ever real-world research project! To my surprise, I not only got the summer research scholarship but was also given the Aleks Brumby Scholarship for being the top candidate in that summer research cohort. You can just guess how surprised and excited I was! Gee, stepping outside my comfort zoon wasn’t too bad?!
Having tasted the reward of being proactive, I became more confident and thirsty for opportunities. I emailed the team to request for an early start and didn’t even want to take a break over Christmas (not allowed though so I was forced to rest). I’m not recommending anyone to work extra hours, nor is it the best idea, but I was just so excited at being in a real research environment and wanted more out of the experience. The three months over that summer were very fulfilling, I was surprised how willing researchers and other Ph.D. students were to teach me. They also were nothing like the stereotypes (ie. nerdy) but really friendly, social people. The environment, people and work made me fall in love with research, seminars and slowly – coffee. After the summer, I didn’t want to leave and wanted something to keep me there.
Since most institutes are strict with volunteering, I had to find a course to enrol in that would allow me to stay in the lab. Ah! That’s right. Linda recommended me looking into AsPins, which stands for Advanced science program in science and offers project-based year-long courses, exactly what I needed. However, the day I found that out was the day after the deadline to apply, how unlucky! Sigh……If I don’t get in, there didn’t seem to be a way to stay in this lab then. I did something very unusual, I emailed the program coordinator to beg for a place! I said I really needed it to stay in the lab and would hate to leave such a nice learning environment. To my great surprise, I was given a place!! Wow, this was a massive lesson for me – always ask even if it appears impossible by rules.
I kept finding ways to stay in the lab (legitimately) by enrolling in research courses and summer/winter research programs. It offered me great insight into how other researchers work, amazing weekly seminars and mentorship. I grew so much in the next two years from just a good student to an aspiring research scholar. Because I stayed in the same lab and maintained a good relationship with Linda, I was given the opportunities to attend overseas courses, and present at conferences. All of these experiences were so rare for undergraduate students, as I often found myself the youngest in the cohort. I am deeply grateful for everyone in Linda’s lab for kickstarting my research career.
Maintaining a high GPA while doing lab work went on for the next two years. But I didn’t just become satisfied and stop taking initiatives. Back in first year, I remembered one Chinese tutor really well, who didn’t have perfect English but was teaching others! She was just like me and I never thought we could do things like that. Interestingly, I was invited to become a PASS leader for BIOL1040 because I got a 7 for the course, yep the course I dreaded the most in first semester! It was hard not to take the opportunity since it was well paid (being honest here). It was another massive step outside my comfort zone but I took it. Later on in my Honours year, I was able to upgrade to a practical tutor that funded part of my rent! The thought that I went from a scared BIOL1040 student to a confident BIOL1040 tutor in 3 years still amazes me – Sometimes you don’t know what you are capable of and what life has in store for you!
In my last year of uni, I also started exploring other aspects of employability, like entrepreneurship, speaking, designs and so on that were seemingly unrelated to my profession. I learned from UQ’s employability workshops that these are critical transferrable skills in the real world that are highly valued by any employer. Regardless of whether I stay in academia or not, I would need these other skills and I actually really enjoyed learning all these new things. I went to many pitching events and worked at startups, they are very interesting experiences as people work so differently! I am so glad that in my last year of uni, I signed up for lots of non-science activities and really opened up my eyes to see what else goes on in the business world.
I think the most valuable lesson I learned from this journey is that once you take a small step out of your comfort zone, you will start to be rewarded by opportunities. And once you have that one thing to put on your resume or start a conversation/relationship, more will just keep coming! I describe this the ‘snow ball’ effect. After just three years of snowballing, my CV went from blank to 4 pages! Just imagine that I didn’t take that initial step and would still be anxious about my future.
Meeting the right people and learning from them is so important. I am really grateful for the wisdom from James, Brian, Linda, everyone in Linda’s lab as well as my supportive partner family and friends. There was something to learn from all of them, even though my partner was not from my profession. I learned and am still learning from the wonderful Raymond that there is no point in stressing about things that I can’t control and focus on things that I can. Complaining doesn’t make life better but only annoys myself and my loved ones. It’s a tough art to master and I’m still bad at it, but I will keep improving!
What an unexpected and interesting journey! I would have never thought the 4 years would go like this. Can’t wait to see how the next 4 years will unfold 🙂