Raphaella So, Biochemistry
Research Title: Investigating alpha-synuclein fibril strains and their effects on disease phenotype
Supervisor: Joel Watts
Description of your research:
My research projects at the Watts Lab revolve around characterizing alpha-synuclein protein aggregates, which are common pathological hallmarks among Parkinson's and some rarer neurodegenerative diseases. I am investigating how distinct structures (or "strains") of such aggregates can lead to different diseases in mice, which will inform future experimental modeling and shed light on the development of strain-based therapeutics.
Why did you choose this department:
I did my Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, so naturally the Biochem department was the first department I looked into when applying for graduate school. There were several groups doing research that greatly interested me, and I was excited about Biochem’s new rotation system which would help me decide in which lab I wanted to spend my next 5-6 years.
How was your experience looking for a research opportunity:
Finding success by “just asking” has been a common theme in my experience. Like all my previous research labs, I found my current one by reading up on their work online and then cold-calling the professor via email. I told Joel that I was applying for PhD direct-entry in the Department of Biochemistry, expressed my interest in his research, and briefly explained how my previous experience would be useful. The timing worked out perfectly as there was a student about to graduate, so I ended up joining the lab and taking over the project.
When did you start your research experience:
I started in my PhD lab in September 2017, but my research career officially began in 2013, when I spent a semester in Dr. Li Yang’s cancer lab at the National Institutes of Health as part of my high school’s science internship program. All throughout high school, I actually thought I would become a chemist, but I applied the Yang lab because I thought it would be a cooler research project than working in an asphalt lab. Realistically, a high school student would not be a very useful lab member, and I made so many mistakes in that lab, but the experience was life-changing. I learned to appreciate working with people equally passionate about exploring the unknown, and I ended up falling in love with biomedical research itself. Without that exposure in high school I probably would not have ended up in biochemistry.
Why did you choose this supervisor:
Because the Biochem department has a rotation system, I was able to really spend time with the supervisor, the research project, and the colleagues before committing to a place. While what initially attracted me to the Watts lab was neurodegeneration research, I was convinced to stay because Joel’s supervision style works well for me, I really hit it off with the lab members, and the open concept setting on our floor allowed me to build friendships with neighboring labs who have similar expertise.
What’s your experience with research:
To be honest, I’m not good at research. What takes a normal person 1-2 times to learn in lab takes me 3-4 times, and even after that I make mistakes often. I was so diffident that, at one point before applying for graduate school, I questioned whether I would be better off doing something else. But my passion lies with science and with discovering the intricacies of human disease, and I really could not imagine myself doing something else for a living.
A mentor told me that I can get better at something I love to do, but I can’t force myself to love doing something I don’t enjoy. So I’ve turned science into a challenge I am determined to overcome, and instead of blaming myself when something does not work, I’ve been consciously trying to treat each mistake as an opportunity to learn and “optimize” both my experiment protocol and myself.
Research is also one of those things where success comes from multiple rounds of trial and error. It took me all of my undergraduate career and my first year of graduate school to find peace with failing on a regular basis. Receiving psychological support from my supervisor and fellow colleagues on those bad days has really helped motivating me to keep on persevering, and now I just treat “trying multiple times to get one usable piece of data” as part of my job description. I cry about it if I need to, get a good night’s sleep, and tomorrow is another day.
How’s the social experience with research:
My family friends assume that being a researcher entails long hours holed up in lab with no friends and no life. That is not true. Because of rotations and departmental social events, I have met so many people outside of my own lab, and my closest friend group of 4 girls spans over 4 different labs across 3 different research buildings. We call ourselves The Gluttony Club and we regularly hang out after lab, get food, and work out together. Our meetup frequency is positively correlated to our stress level.
In biology research, people tend to bond over failed experiments, or puns and jokes related to their own field. Being a part of this in-group has allowed me to take part in a whole different type of friendship, where people have experienced each others’ daily struggles and can offer the right kind of psychological and practical support.
What are your future career plans:
I don’t quite know yet. I love designing and doing experiments, but I am also interested in communicating science to the general public. Whatever I choose to do, I know I will want to stay close to the front lines of research where all the interesting science happens.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
A lot of opportunities came when I was prepared and persistent, so be prepared (knowledge- and skill-wise) and persistent (with applying for opportunities).