What it’s like to be a neuroscientist

In the second of a series on what the lives of Stanford researchers actually look like, neuroscientist Miriam Goodman and four members of her lab talk about their paths to neuroscience, how they handle failures, and the hopes and joys that keep them coming back for more.

Like a lot of people, Joy Franco gets in to work around 8 a.m. and starts her day checking on her projects, making lists of things to do and getting down to work. But unlike most people, Franco’s work is worms. She is a graduate student in the lab of neuroscientist Miriam Goodman , a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and a member of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute  and Stanford Bio-X who studies the sense of touch in a tiny worm called C. elegans. Their goal is to better understand how the sense of touch works and why sometimes it doesn’t.

The work is enlightening, but often tedious. There are solutions to mix, experiments to run and worms to feed, a repetitive task that involves transferring worm food by pipette into hundreds of individual dishes. There is also the issue of failure - equipment breaks, reagents go bad or experiments produce results that make little sense.

Yet scientific work also brings its own special kinds of rewards. There is, for example, the hope that studying touch in worms will one day lead to treatments or therapies for people undergoing chemotherapy, which sometimes robs patients of their sense of touch. There is the pleasure that some get simply from making something, whether it’s a new piece of lab equipment or a scientific figure. And there is the unique if intermittent joy of discovering something new.

Here, Franco, Goodman, postdoctoral fellows  Dail Chapman  and Alakananda Das and graduate student Adam Nekimken talk about what it’s like to be a neuroscientist, what keeps them motivated and what other paths they might have taken - or might still take.

Versions of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Stanford Medicine magazine and on the Scope blog.

Miriam Goodman

Goodman first joined the Stanford faculty in 2002 and became chair of her department in 2017. She spoke about the joy of making, the necessity of failure and the particular kind of excitement that comes from scientific discovery.

"It’s that hope that your prediction will be correct and the openness to the possibility of seeing something you didn’t expect. Discoveries are literally intermittent reinforcement. Their timing is completely unpredictable."

Read the interview

Joy Franco

Franco is a third-year PhD student in the lab. In an audio story recorded for Stanford Medicine, she talks about the beauty of microscopic worms, how bikes got her into engineering and neuroscience, and the sometimes painful realities that drive her.

"I look at that and think, ’Well, I have to do something in this world. I might as well help try to figure this out.’ And that is definitely wishful thinking, because it takes a lot of work from a lot of people, but it is what motivates me."

Listen to the interview

Alakananda Das

Das is a postdoctoral fellow who joined Goodman’s lab in 2016. She spoke about the struggles of getting ideas to work, what keeps her going and the pleasure she finds in the sometimes repetitive work of laboratory science.

"There is a sense of accomplishment that you get when you finally get something. But the thing is, even with the ones that didn’t work out, we still learned something. It’s just not what we were expecting."

Read the interview

Adam Nekimken

Nekimken is a fourth-year mechanical engineering graduate student now finishing up his doctorate. He talked about using engineering to further neuroscience, his interest in industry work and the value of basic science research.

"I’m working on new devices for studying the worms. Those in themselves are not going to cure any diseases, but you have to keep in mind the bigger picture: Maybe someone will see that and have an idea that could end up helping people."

Read the interview

Dail Chapman

Chapman is a postdoctoral fellow in Goodman’s lab. She spoke about what makes science fun, how to deal with boredom and how she went about telling Goodman that she wanted to pursue a career in teaching.

"When she asked what I saw myself doing, I totally let my guard down and let my passion for teaching come through, and it was a nerve-wracking moment. You would think that would be a problem. And instead, it wasn’t."

Read the interview

Now that she runs her own lab, and especially since she became chair of her department in 2017, Goodman spends more time in meetings and responding to email, taking her away from the work she most enjoys: making things - tools and equipment for the lab, or beautiful scientific figures for a publication. Running a lab is "analogous to being a coach," she said. "I’m working to help everyone see where they can expand their knowledge, deepen their technical skills, overcome the fears that we all have." Here, she talks about what she might have done had she not pursued science, the scientific necessity of failure and the idea that scientific research is a kind of intermittent reinforcement - a lab technique in which researchers dole out rewards on an unpredictable basis to train lab animals.

"When I first started the lab here, I was doing experiments myself recording from touch receptor neurons with Bob O’Hagan, who was then a graduate student at Columbia visiting Stanford so the two of us could work together on these neurons. Late in the day, near the end of Bob’s visit, we got the first data, and we’re sitting looking at the computer going, ’Huh.’ The cell is activated when you push it, which was something I expected, and it was activated when you stop pushing, which is something I did not anticipate, and I was like, ’That’s really cool.’ I’m sitting next to Bob, I’m whacking him on the shoulder. I don’t know what the heck it means, but wow, isn’t that cool?

"If you’re really lucky, that kind of discovery happens maybe two or three times a year. It’s that hope that your prediction will be correct and the openness to the possibility of seeing something you didn’t expect that I think keeps most scientists going. Discoveries are literally intermittent reinforcement. Their timing is completely unpredictable.

"Failure is a part of doing science too, because there’s uncertainty. You can’t make progress in an uncertain path if you don’t have failures. That doesn’t mean that you as a person are a failure. Everything that you’ve done up until this point - you spent the week tending your worms, getting them to the right stage. You learned how to use the microscope you didn’t know how to use before, and you found out the worms didn’t look like you expected them to look, but you still did those things. So now you just have to deal with this piece that maybe didn’t end up with the data you were seeking. But, in any given week, the data aren’t the only outcome that matters. The journey and the discovery and the data are intertwined.

"The other piece of it is, I do like to make stuff, and being in a research lab there’s always something you need to be making. If I had known that industrial design was a thing that you could do, maybe I would have done that. If I had known you could be a software engineer without debugging code endlessly, I might have done that. I’m not unhappy with what I’m doing. I wish I had more time to spend in the lab than I do.

"So let me tell one little anecdote that relates to the lab that I worked in as a college student writing code. During the last summer I was in the lab, the lab head was dying of lung cancer. The lab was actually physically in the hospital. He would come from his hospital bed - when he felt well enough to walk - to the lab to find out what we were doing because it made him happy, because it gave him joy, even though he was in enormous pain. There was something really powerful to see about that passion and connection that many scientists have to their work.

"I don’t know if I’ve got that deep a connection as he did, but if I can rebuild that connection with the experimental work through my own hands or those of the folks in my lab and in my collaborators’ labs, I can imagine that."

Now that she runs her own lab, and especially since she became chair of her department in 2017, Goodman spends more time in meetings and responding to email, taking her away from the work she most enjoys: making things - tools and equipment for the lab, or beautiful scientific figures for a publication. Running a lab is "analogous to being a coach," she said. "I’m working to help everyone see where they can expand their knowledge, deepen their technical skills, overcome the fears that we all have." Here, she talks about what she might have done had she not pursued science, the scientific necessity of failure and the idea that scientific research is a kind of intermittent reinforcement - a lab technique in which researchers dole out rewards on an unpredictable basis to train lab animals.

"When I first started the lab here, I was doing experiments myself recording from touch receptor neurons with Bob O’Hagan, who was then a graduate student at Columbia visiting Stanford so the two of us could work together on these neurons. Late in the day, near the end of Bob’s visit, we got the first data, and we’re sitting looking at the computer going, ’Huh.’ The cell is activated when you push it, which was something I expected, and it was activated when you stop pushing, which is something I did not anticipate, and I was like, ’That’s really cool.’ I’m sitting next to Bob, I’m whacking him on the shoulder. I don’t know what the heck it means, but wow, isn’t that cool?

"If you’re really lucky, that kind of discovery happens maybe two or three times a year. It’s that hope that your prediction will be correct and the openness to the possibility of seeing something you didn’t expect that I think keeps most scientists going. Discoveries are literally intermittent reinforcement. Their timing is completely unpredictable.

"Failure is a part of doing science too, because there’s uncertainty. You can’t make progress in an uncertain path if you don’t have failures. That doesn’t mean that you as a person are a failure. Everything that you’ve done up until this point - you spent the week tending your worms, getting them to the right stage. You learned how to use the microscope you didn’t know how to use before, and you found out the worms didn’t look like you expected them to look, but you still did those things. So now you just have to deal with this piece that maybe didn’t end up with the data you were seeking. But, in any given week, the data aren’t the only outcome that matters. The journey and the discovery and the data are intertwined.

"The other piece of it is, I do like to make stuff, and being in a research lab there’s always something you need to be making. If I had known that industrial design was a thing that you could do, maybe I would have done that. If I had known you could be a software engineer without debugging code endlessly, I might have done that. I’m not unhappy with what I’m doing. I wish I had more time to spend in the lab than I do.

"So let me tell one little anecdote that relates to the lab that I worked in as a college student writing code. During the last summer I was in the lab, the lab head was dying of lung cancer. The lab was actually physically in the hospital. He would come from his hospital bed - when he felt well enough to walk - to the lab to find out what we were doing because it made him happy, because it gave him joy, even though he was in enormous pain. There was something really powerful to see about that passion and connection that many scientists have to their work.

"I don’t know if I’ve got that deep a connection as he did, but if I can rebuild that connection with the experimental work through my own hands or those of the folks in my lab and in my collaborators’ labs, I can imagine that."

Go to the web site to hear the audio.

Franco hopes to open up new ways of studying touch. She is a graduate student in mechanical engineering and focuses on finding better ways to grow touch-sensitive neurons in a dish. But she did not always imagine this life for herself - in fact, she did not always think she’d go to college. In the audio story above, Franco explains how her love of bicycles set her on a path to graduate school, what it’s like to be a neuroscientist and the experiences that keep her motivated to continue in scientific research.

(A transcript of the interview follows.)

Joy Franco  To me riding bikes was everything, right, and like it, it - riding bikes changed my life for the better in every way possible. And it made me so happy to see that another person could experience that.

Nathan Collins Hi, I’m Nathan Collins, and that was Joy Franco. Franco is a graduate student here at Stanford University, and I had the chance to interview her for a piece I did for Stanford Medicine magazine. I found out that Franco is not your typical graduate student. For one thing, she’s a mechanical engineer working in a neuroscience lab to study the sense of touch. For another she’s a competitive cyclist. And here’s the third thing: When she graduated from high school she didn’t think she was ever going to go to college. Here’s Franco.

Joy Franco So when I graduated from high school I didn’t really have any college prospects, so I moved out of the house, and I started working full time and living on my own. Over the years, you know, I really struggled to pay bills, struggled to be, you know, an early 20-something year old trying to find her own way in the Bay Area and make ends meet. So I went in and out of community college for a while and had been out of community college for a while when I was talking to some of my cyclist friends about bike fit.

Nathan Collins Specifically the biomechanics of bike fit, that is, how your position on a bike affects your speed and efficiency. It was that subject that propelled Franco back to school and on her way to a bachelor’s degree. But it was another experience with bikes that set her on the path to neuroscience.

Joy Franco So I went back to community college and was just in it, like really in it. And that first, first semester I was at community college, Cañada College in Redwood City, I was also racing mountain bikes still. And during a mountain bike race this guy with a prosthetic lower leg passed me. And it was pouring down rain and mud, and I just was really blown away by the rider - his spirit, but also that someone could engineer a tool that would enable him to do something that he wouldn’t normally be able to do. It kind of got me really interested in you know adaptive technologies for people who are mobility limited. I learned about neurally interfaced prosthetics, which is just so awesome, right?

Nathan Collins The prosthetics Franco is talking about are pretty awesome. They include robotic arms and computer keyboards that people with paralysis can control via electrodes implanted directly into their brains.

Joy Franco And that sort of got me interested in neuroscience, and I learned about Stanford being an amazing place to study neuroscience. And so my first semester back at community college, I immediately was like I want to go get a PhD at Stanford, you know. And so that was, you know, spring of 2011 and then everything from there on out was just, "what do I need to do to get a PhD at Stanford?”

Nathan Collins Of course, she did get into Stanford, and by the time she had, she had developed an interest in using mechanical engineering as a tool for understanding neuroscience. She had also gotten four equations tattooed on the inside of her right forearm. One of those equations describes the shape of a heart.

Joy Franco So it’s a very long equation that has one two three four components. I wanted to really commemorate that moment in my life because I had given up racing bicycles. I’d given up hanging out with my friends, and trying to get into Stanford PhD program meant that like I was working all day Saturday, all day Sunday - like I never took any time off, you know? And so it was just three years of really, really hard work and - and sacrifice.

Nathan Collins Today Franco works in a lab of neuroscientist Miriam Goodman. The goal of her work is to better understand our sense of touch and why sometimes people lose their sense of touch. But because it’s hard to study touch directly in humans the lab instead focuses on minuscule worms called Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short. They’re about a millimeter long, and a lot of the lab’s time is spent developing techniques and equipment for gently stroking the worms to see how they’ll react. Some of their time goes to breeding different kinds of worms so that they can figure out how different genes affect the sense of touch. And a great deal of their time goes to simply feeding and caring for their worms. It is not always glamorous.

Joy Franco So the worms - they live on these agar plates. It’s kind of like jello, and on top of the jello is E. coli. There’s bacteria. You know, it’s not dangerous E. coli, but we have to actually put the E. coli on the plates in order to feed the worms. We call it seeding plates, and you seed probably like 200, two to three hundred of them at a time. And that is definitely the most boring task.

Joy Franco My favorite part of the job is looking at worms through the microscope. When you’re - you know you’re on the microscope and they’re moving around it is - it is just beautiful. And because the worms that we use we have fluorescent florophores in them, it’s really a glow worm that’s moving around. And I just can’t get past how awesome that is and how awesome it is that that’s my job.

Nathan Collins But why does she do it? Because touch is so important to our lives.

Joy Franco Loss of touch sensation is horrible. You know if you know someone who’s gone through chemotherapy it’s you know pretty easy to connect with them about how chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy is just a horrible thing.

Nathan Collins Usually people think of chemotherapy as the hard part of getting cancer treatment. But many who go through chemotherapy lose their sense of touch, sometimes permanently, and among Franco’s goals is to help those people. Another goal is to help combat neurodegenerative diseases including dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Joy Franco Neurodegeneration is horrible. It is absolutely my worst fear in life to end up with dementia. My, my grandmother, she had dementia right before she passed away. And I can tell you from firsthand observation it’s - it’s really not something that you want. It’s very, very sad and painful for everyone involved. And I sort of look at that and think, "well, I have to do something in this world. I might as well help try to figure this out.” Or, you know, who knows, maybe one day we can figure out a therapy or maybe one day figure out a cure. And that is definitely wishful thinking because it takes a lot of work from a lot of people, but it is what motivates me to keep coming back.

Nathan Collins To find out more about Franco and Miriam Goodman’s Wormsense lab, read my story, "Life in a Lab," in the latest issue of Stanford Medicinemagazine.

Go to the web site to hear the audio.

Franco hopes to open up new ways of studying touch. She is a graduate student in mechanical engineering and focuses on finding better ways to grow touch-sensitive neurons in a dish. But she did not always imagine this life for herself - in fact, she did not always think she’d go to college. In the audio story above, Franco explains how her love of bicycles set her on a path to graduate school, what it’s like to be a neuroscientist and the experiences that keep her motivated to continue in scientific research.

(A transcript of the interview follows.)

Joy Franco  To me riding bikes was everything, right, and like it, it - riding bikes changed my life for the better in every way possible. And it made me so happy to see that another person could experience that.

Nathan Collins Hi, I’m Nathan Collins, and that was Joy Franco. Franco is a graduate student here at Stanford University, and I had the chance to interview her for a piece I did for Stanford Medicine magazine. I found out that Franco is not your typical graduate student. For one thing, she’s a mechanical engineer working in a neuroscience lab to study the sense of touch. For another she’s a competitive cyclist. And here’s the third thing: When she graduated from high school she didn’t think she was ever going to go to college. Here’s Franco.

Joy Franco So when I graduated from high school I didn’t really have any college prospects, so I moved out of the house, and I started working full time and living on my own. Over the years, you know, I really struggled to pay bills, struggled to be, you know, an early 20-something year old trying to find her own way in the Bay Area and make ends meet. So I went in and out of community college for a while and had been out of community college for a while when I was talking to some of my cyclist friends about bike fit.

Nathan Collins Specifically the biomechanics of bike fit, that is, how your position on a bike affects your speed and efficiency. It was that subject that propelled Franco back to school and on her way to a bachelor’s degree. But it was another experience with bikes that set her on the path to neuroscience.

Joy Franco So I went back to community college and was just in it, like really in it. And that first, first semester I was at community college, Cañada College in Redwood City, I was also racing mountain bikes still. And during a mountain bike race this guy with a prosthetic lower leg passed me. And it was pouring down rain and mud, and I just was really blown away by the rider - his spirit, but also that someone could engineer a tool that would enable him to do something that he wouldn’t normally be able to do. It kind of got me really interested in you know adaptive technologies for people who are mobility limited. I learned about neurally interfaced prosthetics, which is just so awesome, right?

Nathan Collins The prosthetics Franco is talking about are pretty awesome. They include robotic arms and computer keyboards that people with paralysis can control via electrodes implanted directly into their brains.

Joy Franco And that sort of got me interested in neuroscience, and I learned about Stanford being an amazing place to study neuroscience. And so my first semester back at community college, I immediately was like I want to go get a PhD at Stanford, you know. And so that was, you know, spring of 2011 and then everything from there on out was just, "what do I need to do to get a PhD at Stanford?”

Nathan Collins Of course, she did get into Stanford, and by the time she had, she had developed an interest in using mechanical engineering as a tool for understanding neuroscience. She had also gotten four equations tattooed on the inside of her right forearm. One of those equations describes the shape of a heart.

Joy Franco So it’s a very long equation that has one two three four components. I wanted to really commemorate that moment in my life because I had given up racing bicycles. I’d given up hanging out with my friends, and trying to get into Stanford PhD program meant that like I was working all day Saturday, all day Sunday - like I never took any time off, you know? And so it was just three years of really, really hard work and - and sacrifice.

Nathan Collins Today Franco works in a lab of neuroscientist Miriam Goodman. The goal of her work is to better understand our sense of touch and why sometimes people lose their sense of touch. But because it’s hard to study touch directly in humans the lab instead focuses on minuscule worms called Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short. They’re about a millimeter long, and a lot of the lab’s time is spent developing techniques and equipment for gently stroking the worms to see how they’ll react. Some of their time goes to breeding different kinds of worms so that they can figure out how different genes affect the sense of touch. And a great deal of their time goes to simply feeding and caring for their worms. It is not always glamorous.

Joy Franco So the worms - they live on these agar plates. It’s kind of like jello, and on top of the jello is E. coli. There’s bacteria. You know, it’s not dangerous E. coli, but we have to actually put the E. coli on the plates in order to feed the worms. We call it seeding plates, and you seed probably like 200, two to three hundred of them at a time. And that is definitely the most boring task.

Joy Franco My favorite part of the job is looking at worms through the microscope. When you’re - you know you’re on the microscope and they’re moving around it is - it is just beautiful. And because the worms that we use we have fluorescent florophores in them, it’s really a glow worm that’s moving around. And I just can’t get past how awesome that is and how awesome it is that that’s my job.

Nathan Collins But why does she do it? Because touch is so important to our lives.

Joy Franco Loss of touch sensation is horrible. You know if you know someone who’s gone through chemotherapy it’s you know pretty easy to connect with them about how chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy is just a horrible thing.

Nathan Collins Usually people think of chemotherapy as the hard part of getting cancer treatment. But many who go through chemotherapy lose their sense of touch, sometimes permanently, and among Franco’s goals is to help those people. Another goal is to help combat neurodegenerative diseases including dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Joy Franco Neurodegeneration is horrible. It is absolutely my worst fear in life to end up with dementia. My, my grandmother, she had dementia right before she passed away. And I can tell you from firsthand observation it’s - it’s really not something that you want. It’s very, very sad and painful for everyone involved. And I sort of look at that and think, "well, I have to do something in this world. I might as well help try to figure this out.” Or, you know, who knows, maybe one day we can figure out a therapy or maybe one day figure out a cure. And that is definitely wishful thinking because it takes a lot of work from a lot of people, but it is what motivates me to keep coming back.

Nathan Collins To find out more about Franco and Miriam Goodman’s Wormsense lab, read my story, "Life in a Lab," in the latest issue of Stanford Medicinemagazine.

Das grew up in India and came to the U.S. for graduate school before joining the Goodman lab, where she is now a third-year postdoctoral fellow. Her work focuses on the molecular basis of touch and other forms of mechanosensation, or how cells detect and respond to pressure. Day to day, that means she spends a lot of time editing worm genomes. Here, she talks about the struggles she’s faced getting a project to work, what keeps her going and the pleasure she finds in the sometimes repetitive work of laboratory science.

"In the past two years I have been working toward one goal, and everything that I’d tried had failed, and then just in the last month I got a success. I had these four methods lined up initially, and I went through one by one. It’s just the last one that worked. What got me through it is knowing it can be done, and then it’s just a matter of finding the right way to do it. There is a sense of accomplishment that you get when you finally get something, and the longer the frustration has been, the greater the sense of achievement. But the thing is, even with the ones that didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean it didn’t tell us something about the system. We still learned something. It’s just not what we were expecting.

"The work that I mostly do, the gene editing part, the designing of these changes that I’m going to put into the genome, I find that part really exciting. When I look at the process, it’s basically taking blocks of modules and putting them in different configurations and seeing what the result would be. So it kind of reminds me of building a machine and switching out different parts and seeing how the machine would function.

"I want to continue to do research. I don’t particularly prefer academia or industry or any such thing, but whatever would allow me to continue doing research in some form, I would be happy with it. I also enjoy teaching. So far I have mentored several undergrads, and I really enjoy that part, working with students, showing them things and training them in what I do. I really enjoy doing bench work. The repetitive motions of it, I find it actually calming. Being a Principal Investigator I find a little bit daunting, just because when you are a PI you are not involved in bench research that much. And I would really like to be involved in bench science."

Das grew up in India and came to the U.S. for graduate school before joining the Goodman lab, where she is now a third-year postdoctoral fellow. Her work focuses on the molecular basis of touch and other forms of mechanosensation, or how cells detect and respond to pressure. Day to day, that means she spends a lot of time editing worm genomes. Here, she talks about the struggles she’s faced getting a project to work, what keeps her going and the pleasure she finds in the sometimes repetitive work of laboratory science.

"In the past two years I have been working toward one goal, and everything that I’d tried had failed, and then just in the last month I got a success. I had these four methods lined up initially, and I went through one by one. It’s just the last one that worked. What got me through it is knowing it can be done, and then it’s just a matter of finding the right way to do it. There is a sense of accomplishment that you get when you finally get something, and the longer the frustration has been, the greater the sense of achievement. But the thing is, even with the ones that didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean it didn’t tell us something about the system. We still learned something. It’s just not what we were expecting.

"The work that I mostly do, the gene editing part, the designing of these changes that I’m going to put into the genome, I find that part really exciting. When I look at the process, it’s basically taking blocks of modules and putting them in different configurations and seeing what the result would be. So it kind of reminds me of building a machine and switching out different parts and seeing how the machine would function.

"I want to continue to do research. I don’t particularly prefer academia or industry or any such thing, but whatever would allow me to continue doing research in some form, I would be happy with it. I also enjoy teaching. So far I have mentored several undergrads, and I really enjoy that part, working with students, showing them things and training them in what I do. I really enjoy doing bench work. The repetitive motions of it, I find it actually calming. Being a Principal Investigator I find a little bit daunting, just because when you are a PI you are not involved in bench research that much. And I would really like to be involved in bench science."

Nekimken originally planned to be a mechanical engineer and started working in the lab through a collaboration between Goodman and Beth Pruitt, a former professor of mechanical engineering. He is developing tiny mechanical devices that help researchers touch their worms in more controlled ways. Now at the end of his graduate training, Nekimken is considering his next steps.

"I knew when I started grad school I wanted to do micro-fabrication, making these little micro-mechanical devices. I did an internship after my junior year of undergrad and found that I really liked this stuff, but I didn’t want to work on the typical application of that, which is mostly making smartphones incrementally better. That was why I joined Beth Pruitt’s lab, because the theme of her lab is using these micro-fabricated technologies to study biology. I wasn’t looking in particular for biology, but it sort of ended up that was the application that she was working on, and one of the projects in lab was collaborating with Miriam to study touch in worms.

"I do like the interdisciplinarity of it. I’ve learned a ton of biology, and I think that’s interesting to learn a new field entirely. And I like working with the micro-devices because it’s something that almost feels out of reach. With modern manufacturing technology we can make devices that are very small and do what you want them to do. That’s sort of the engineer in me, designing new things and building them up and then actually using a thing that you built.

"My plan is to go into industry, in part because I want to work on something that has an impact at a larger scale than doing the research. For me, the biggest result of doing my PhD - other than publishing some papers that may have some impact - is learning the process of thinking through this research and learning how to formulate experiments and perform them.

"We do very basic biology research. Maybe with the exception of what Lingxin Wang [a postdoctoral fellow in the lab] is doing studying chemotherapy drugs, not much of the work we do has direct applications for humans. I’m working on new devices and new methods for studying the worms, so those on their own are not going to cure any diseases or anything, but you have to keep in mind the bigger picture: Maybe someone will see that and have an idea that leads them to some other insight that could end up helping people.

"You’ll hear people talk about, ’Why are we funding this and that stupid research when you could have just done this one that leads to some big thing?’ But the problem is, we just don’t know that ahead of time, and so we have to do all of this research and just try and understand the natural world, with the foreknowledge that someone, somewhere, will have an important insight."

Nekimken originally planned to be a mechanical engineer and started working in the lab through a collaboration between Goodman and Beth Pruitt, a former professor of mechanical engineering. He is developing tiny mechanical devices that help researchers touch their worms in more controlled ways. Now at the end of his graduate training, Nekimken is considering his next steps.

"I knew when I started grad school I wanted to do micro-fabrication, making these little micro-mechanical devices. I did an internship after my junior year of undergrad and found that I really liked this stuff, but I didn’t want to work on the typical application of that, which is mostly making smartphones incrementally better. That was why I joined Beth Pruitt’s lab, because the theme of her lab is using these micro-fabricated technologies to study biology. I wasn’t looking in particular for biology, but it sort of ended up that was the application that she was working on, and one of the projects in lab was collaborating with Miriam to study touch in worms.

"I do like the interdisciplinarity of it. I’ve learned a ton of biology, and I think that’s interesting to learn a new field entirely. And I like working with the micro-devices because it’s something that almost feels out of reach. With modern manufacturing technology we can make devices that are very small and do what you want them to do. That’s sort of the engineer in me, designing new things and building them up and then actually using a thing that you built.

"My plan is to go into industry, in part because I want to work on something that has an impact at a larger scale than doing the research. For me, the biggest result of doing my PhD - other than publishing some papers that may have some impact - is learning the process of thinking through this research and learning how to formulate experiments and perform them.

"We do very basic biology research. Maybe with the exception of what Lingxin Wang [a postdoctoral fellow in the lab] is doing studying chemotherapy drugs, not much of the work we do has direct applications for humans. I’m working on new devices and new methods for studying the worms, so those on their own are not going to cure any diseases or anything, but you have to keep in mind the bigger picture: Maybe someone will see that and have an idea that leads them to some other insight that could end up helping people.

"You’ll hear people talk about, ’Why are we funding this and that stupid research when you could have just done this one that leads to some big thing?’ But the problem is, we just don’t know that ahead of time, and so we have to do all of this research and just try and understand the natural world, with the foreknowledge that someone, somewhere, will have an important insight."

Unlike many of her colleagues, Chapman came to the lab planning one day to teach science at a liberal arts college. A mug above her desk reads, "I became a teacher for the money and fame." She had some trepidation about revealing her long-term plan when Goodman interviewed her for her current position in the lab.

"I was super apprehensive about even bringing up teaching because I think, as scientists, the expectation is that you want to become a renowned researcher. So I was talking to my boss about how I should conduct the interview, and whether I should be honest about my career pursuits, and he told me, ’No.’

"But it just didn’t feel right to essentially lie to someone who may become my future boss. And it’s not in my character. So when she asked what I saw myself doing, I totally let my guard down and let my passion for teaching come through, and it was a nerve-wracking moment. You would think that would be a problem. And instead, it wasn’t. She said, ’No, I love teaching and I like to teach every chance I can get. I went to a small liberal arts college too, and I know what it’s like to be in that environment where teaching is at the center of the institution’s goals.’

"I do the research partly because I find it very interesting. I love to think about how we work as human beings, and in this lab particularly, how our nervous system works and our neurons work. It’s also fun. I think it’s fun because the people make it fun. I wouldn’t consider pipetting all day fun. But when you’re working with really talented individuals, and those days when something does work, that’s really fun. But I also do it because it’s a step in my career path and I think to be a good teacher you have to have experience with good science. And the only way to do that is to do the science.

"Anything that bores me? I think the days where you’re just in the middle of three different experiments that you’ve done before, so you’re not working yourself mentally. It’s a little bit of a battle as a scientist, because I think what happens in those moments is you have an inner dialogue with yourself and you start to predict, OK, what’s going to go wrong and how can I fix it? And if you spend your days thinking about what could go wrong, it’s not really mentally healthy. So finding ways to keep that conversation at a minimum and just do the task you need to do without making mistakes, I think that’s how you combat that boredom.

"Failure is just part of science, and for me it’s just a test of persistence and a test of using my resources and using my own brain to figure out what’s going wrong in order to get it right. But that’s been a huge struggle for me with science and something that’s really turned me on to teaching, because you can work for years and years on a science project and it’s nothing in your control, it’s just not going to work. And so I think teaching offers that kind of daily sense of reward and that I’ve spent my time well."

Unlike many of her colleagues, Chapman came to the lab planning one day to teach science at a liberal arts college. A mug above her desk reads, "I became a teacher for the money and fame." She had some trepidation about revealing her long-term plan when Goodman interviewed her for her current position in the lab.

"I was super apprehensive about even bringing up teaching because I think, as scientists, the expectation is that you want to become a renowned researcher. So I was talking to my boss about how I should conduct the interview, and whether I should be honest about my career pursuits, and he told me, ’No.’

"But it just didn’t feel right to essentially lie to someone who may become my future boss. And it’s not in my character. So when she asked what I saw myself doing, I totally let my guard down and let my passion for teaching come through, and it was a nerve-wracking moment. You would think that would be a problem. And instead, it wasn’t. She said, ’No, I love teaching and I like to teach every chance I can get. I went to a small liberal arts college too, and I know what it’s like to be in that environment where teaching is at the center of the institution’s goals.’

"I do the research partly because I find it very interesting. I love to think about how we work as human beings, and in this lab particularly, how our nervous system works and our neurons work. It’s also fun. I think it’s fun because the people make it fun. I wouldn’t consider pipetting all day fun. But when you’re working with really talented individuals, and those days when something does work, that’s really fun. But I also do it because it’s a step in my career path and I think to be a good teacher you have to have experience with good science. And the only way to do that is to do the science.

"Anything that bores me? I think the days where you’re just in the middle of three different experiments that you’ve done before, so you’re not working yourself mentally. It’s a little bit of a battle as a scientist, because I think what happens in those moments is you have an inner dialogue with yourself and you start to predict, OK, what’s going to go wrong and how can I fix it? And if you spend your days thinking about what could go wrong, it’s not really mentally healthy. So finding ways to keep that conversation at a minimum and just do the task you need to do without making mistakes, I think that’s how you combat that boredom.

"Failure is just part of science, and for me it’s just a test of persistence and a test of using my resources and using my own brain to figure out what’s going wrong in order to get it right. But that’s been a huge struggle for me with science and something that’s really turned me on to teaching, because you can work for years and years on a science project and it’s nothing in your control, it’s just not going to work. And so I think teaching offers that kind of daily sense of reward and that I’ve spent my time well."


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