What AM I doing With My Life?? My Research/Career Journey
Making life decisions can be hard. In our society, it seems that we have a lot of pressure to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives by the time we are 18 or 19. This seems absolutely ridiculous! At this stage, you have only had memories for 13-15 years, know very little about how the world actually works, and yet are somehow expected to know what you want to do for the next 45+ years (an amount of time that we actually lack the ability to fully comprehend). Many of my friends still have no clue what they want to do with their lives in their late 20s to early 30s. I am turning 27 in a few weeks, and I realize that even if I decided to switch career paths and, for example, go to med school and began my career as a doctor at the age of 40, I would work as many years as I have currently lived now (27), if not more, before I retire.
These kinds of thoughts often plague my mind as I enter into a summer where I am on medical leave from my degree (I have just finished the 4th year of my PhD in Evolutionary Ecology, focusing on plant-herbivore interactions). I have been suffering from a surplus of stress-induced vertigo spells and migraines, which have rendered me useless for large portions of most days for the last year. Further, my motivation has dropped to an all time low. This stress is a result of many aspects of life, personal and professional, and I am taking this time off to relax, adventure and hopefully gain more insight as to what I really want to do with my life.
I have gone through many transitions in what I thought I wanted to do, and these thoughts continue. This is the story of how I got to where I am now, the cool research experiences I have had, and where I think I might go from here. The realization that I will have several decades working in a profession even if I start my career at 40 has certainly taken a lot of stress off of me. Further, I am on the fence about whether I will have children, or if I ever see myself really finding a partner I will desire to spend the rest of my life with (e.g. marriage), which makes me feel like I have even more time to figure life out. I do not know what the future holds for me, but am open to opportunities that I want to seize as they come up (relationships, children, jobs, adventures, etc). I am of course not the first person who has ever come across these struggles (e.g. Steve Denning), and I am sure many of my friends can relate. I am hopeful that this blog post can start a discussion and let others know that it is okay to not know what you want to do with your life, regardless of the stage that you are at. Of course, some of you know what you want to do, and I applaud you!
Before I was 18
In kindergarten, we were asked to draw pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I drew a picture of a person in a room with lots of animals in cages. My teacher and my mom assumed that I was drawing a vet. I had no idea what a vet was, and what I actually wanted to be was a pet shop owner and just be around animals all day. However, this planted the seed that "I wanted to be a vet" into my life, which was a conversation I had a lot throughout elementary school and onwards.
When I was in high school, I was still unsure what I wanted to do. I knew my passion was in nature and animals, but I had no idea how to turn these passions into a career that I wanted. Becoming a vet was my top option but I had some reservations. My hobbies at this time were largely centered on team sports (e.g. basketball, volleyball), and part of me was intrigued by the possibility of incorporating this aspect into my career somehow, but I greatly enjoyed camping and hiking as well. For those who know me now, it seems unreasonable for me to try and be an athlete since my body is a constant wreck, largely as a result of my connective tissue disorder (Ehlers-Danlos), but I was actually a pretty high performing athlete coming out of high school. I had some athletic ambitions before my passion dwindled. Obviously, it would not have worked out ;)
The other passion that I had was for Egypt and Archaeology. For a long time, I wanted to be an Egyptologist, but realized that modern job opportunities for Egyptologists are extremely limited. However, I did maintain a deep passion for other cultures, particularly ancient cultures, which has sparked an interest for much of the subsequent travelling I have done (e.g. SE Asia, Central America, etc.).
I applied to the biology programs at both UBC and Dalhousie, and hoped that I would figure life out from there. I had a high 90s average coming out of high school, and getting into university was not a concern for me (which I am rather lucky about! Not everyone has the ability to go wherever they want to go). According to Macleans, "Students entering the two largest faculties at UBC, science and arts, will need a minimum high school average of 86 and 85 per cent respectively." This can be a major obstacle to people who DO know what they want to do with their lives but cannot get the start they need. I ended up choosing to go to UBC, and I began my journey in the biology program.
Undergraduate- UBC (Canada) and UQ (Australia) (2008-2013)
The first few years of my undergrad required a lot of work. I was lucky enough to not experience "Grade Shock", but it did require me to work on homework from 8 AM to 10 PM 7 days a week, while also holding a part time job. My only respite was daily running and my sport leagues (e.g. basketball, football, dodgeball, volleyball). The rate of student drop out as a result of "Grade Shock", financial concerns, or realizing that they are studying the wrong subject can be as high as 6-20% according to some sources. I knew many individuals who did not come back for their second year for various reasons, such as those listed here. I almost did not come back to UBC after my first year because I was not enjoying my experience at all, but I decided to stick it out (and am glad that I did!).
In my first year biology course, I was exposed to the idea of ecology as a career. I did not realize that a career could be made out of being in nature and studying it, but this greatly appealed to me. In my second year, I was in a lab based biology course which I excelled in, and my TA and professor encouraged me to consider pursuing an Honours degree. At the time, I had no idea what this was, but learned that it was a year-long research project (6 credits) that would be taken in my final year, complete with a thesis.
I applied to the Honours program, but also started taking all the pre-requisites needed to apply to veterinary school. Because I had good grades in my undergrad, I felt optimistic about both options. Many of my fellow students were confused when I told them that I did not want to go to med school, because to them, that was the obvious option given my high grades. It seemed to me that most students in the Faculty of Science at UBC all wanted to go to med school, and to be honest, most of them only wanted to because their parents expected them to and not because they genuinely wanted to themselves (although of course some really did want to themselves!).
At first, I thought I would take Animal Physiology for my Physiology requirement in my biology degree, but last minute found myself deciding to take the less popular Plant Physiology course instead (and taking an animal physiology course more geared towards veterinary knowledge as an elective). This began my passion for plants, and made me realize how fascinating plants are in terms of development, physiology, growth form, response to nature, and in the ease of studying them. I also at this time decided to go on a year long exchange at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, which happens to be the "Ecology Center of Australia".
While in Australia (Feb-Dec 2011), I was lucky enough to participate in a number of research projects. The first one was looking at vigilance behaviour of Red Wallabies in my Animal Behaviour course. This inspired me to pursue a semester long independent project studying the vigilance behaviour of Eastern Grey Kangaroos. I also did a semester long project looking at the properties of the metallophyte species (i.e. a species that requires and accumulates or excludes heavy metals in their tissues) Curly Mitchell Grass for the possibility of use in phytoremediation (i.e. the use of plants to rehabilitate mining sites). Many additional side projects were performed, including looking at predation rates on clay lizards with different skin morphs, swimming capabilities at different temperature levels of cane toads, etc. With all of the wonderful research opportunities at UQ, as well as being treated as an equal by the professors I worked with, I was sold on pursuing research in ecology and putting vet school on the back burner. While in Australia, my hobbies also shifted from team sports and to rock climbing, which I was taking part in 3-4 days a week for the duration of my year there.
While I was in Australia, I contacted Diane Srivastava about the possibility of doing an honours project in her lab. She looked at my resume and transcript and took me on, indicating I could do a project in Australia, Costa Rica or the Gulf Islands. Part of me really wanted to stay more local and do the project in the Gulf Islands, but I knew I would regret not taking the opportunity to research Strawberry Poison Frogs and Bromeliads in Costa Rica. Thus, in the summer of 2012, I was in Costa Rica at La Selva Biological Research Station, studying bromeliads. This was a wonderful experience, where I made many wonderful friendships and connections, and had the opportunity to learn some stats and write a thesis.
In my last year at UBC while doing my thesis, I also took a few really interesting courses. Three noteworthy ones were primatology (where I learned that I would love to study primates!), Forensic Anthropology (where I learned how to age a dead body, determine cause of death, and so much more, at an introductory level), and Art and Archaeology of Ancient Egypt (which reminded me that archaeology is way cool!). These all have played roles in my life path since.
Graduate Studies- UBC (2013-PRESENT; 2017 so far)
Two hours after my thesis defense for my undergraduate Honours thesis, I boarded a ferry to begin my graduate research at UBC. The first half of the summer, I was a field assistant for a lab mate, doing community level surveys throughout the Gulf Islands and on Vancouver Island. The second half of the summer, I was collecting seeds and setting up my first exclosure experiment for my thesis. How I got here was not a simple journey, however, as I did not think I would find myself remaining at UBC for my graduate degree.
When I wrote my Master's level NSERC application (the research funding agency in Canada), I actually applied to work on polar bears at Dalhousie University, investigating diet shifts with climate change. The funding on Dalhousie's end fell through, and they were no longer able to take on an additional student in the lab I was applying to, and I had to look elsewhere. I was in communication with: a researcher in Boulder, Colorado, that studied metallophyte species and phytoremediation (which was and still is a major research interest of mine!); researchers at McGill and the University of Toronto to study primates (namely Lemurs in Madagasar); and then unexpectedly, Peter Arcese at UBC studying plant-herbivore interactions. Each opportunity fell through for one reason or another (the lemurs I would be studying were noctural, gasp! I suck at staying awake at night...), except the opportunity to work in the Gulf Islands on seablush (Plectritis congesta). This project really excited me, so I decided to take it on. At the one year mark, it was clear that there was so much left to explore and I transferred from a masters to a doctoral program, and added chapters utilizing genetic techniques (which also expand my skill set). I am also working on a number of side projects regarding natural recovery of vegetation with herbivore removal, the spread of carpet burweed through SW British Columbia, and a new project with hazelnuts and genetics.
Since summer 2013 until now, I have been steadily working on this project, with many smaller projects involved. For a number of years, I was convinced that I was bound for the academic route: get a PhD, do a few post docs, try and get a tenure track position at a university as a professor. In what topic exactly? Something biology related, but I was keen to look into post-docs in other passions and not just evolutionary ecology, including sexual selection (in humans and animals- some of my favourite books include "Sex, Genes and Rock and Roll: how evolution has shaped the modern world" and "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature", and I am greatly enjoying "Nature's Nether Regions" at the moment), phytoremediation with metallophyte species, or something more conservation focused (particularly with large mammals such as polar bears or snow leopards, using a genetics approach). However, as I see more and more of the academic world and the competitive world that it is, it is becoming clear to me that I do not want this path. This competition is not causing a healthy mental state for myself. I still love research and intend to pursue some post docs, but I also am looking elsewhere for a new path.
My interests also include science outreach and communicating regularly with people such as land owners or elementary-aged students about science and ecology. I have been involved with Let's Talk Science programs at UBC, through running programs such as the Modules in Ecology and Evolution Development (MEED) Program, and TAships that put me in association with the SMaRT and Mentorship programs. I also became responsible for organizing ecology based experiential learning field trips for first year biology students at UBC. I think more and more that I would love to work in science education to help better educate the public about conservation related issues, or just cool facts about evolution to help individuals really understand it.
Where to Next?
Where do I go from here? To be honest, I am not 100% sure. I am keen on finishing my PhD for sure, as I still love my project and have all of the data. But where will I go after that? Some ideas that have gone through my mind concerning biology include post docs as listed above, working as a research scientist at zoos (some of which are becoming research focused) or working as a researcher for the government. I have also considered completely switching fields, and doing a masters degree in anthropology or archaeology if I can find the funding. Alternatively, I have realized that maybe I do want to be a nurse or a doctor; after all, I find gory injuries absolutely fascinating almost to the point of obsession. My passions over the last few years has strongly gone to outdoor activities (skiing, rock climbing, scrambling, hiking, mountaineering), and a huge part of me wants to see if there is a way I can incorporate this element somehow. There is a group looking to hire Adventure Scientists (or both that can collaborate with each other) to collect data in hard to reach locations. If I could enhance my skills enough, perhaps this could be an option. To be honest, I kind of like that I have no idea what I am doing with my life! But I do hope that I can figure it out in the next few months, or by the end of 2017. I might change directions entirely after my PhD, and enter the medical field either through research or through nursing or med school, or find something else entirely.