Writing Your Scientific Origin Story

August 23, 2021

I recently had the honor of giving the Keynote address at the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (HGWISE) + Learn with Leaders Summer Research Workshop. The workshop focuses on connecting high school girls in India with researchers from industry and academia to empower them to formulate their own research questions under the mentorship of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows from Harvard and MIT. I just wanted to provide here a partial transcript of the major points in my Keynote address in case anyone else could benefit from it.

Keynote: Writing Your Scientific Origin Story

[scientific] origin story - an account or backstory that establishes the background narrative and informs the identity and motivations of the person [as a scientist]

It’s my pleasure to be giving this keynote to an audience of aspiring young scientists. I was asked to speak so that my “personal and professional journey as a scientist could inspire you all to pursue STEM and research.” So I thought a bit about what has inspired me, back when I was in your shoes, and rather than a formal scientific talk about my research, I thought it’d be more fun to tell you all a story an origin story and more specifically a scientific origin story that’s my scientific origin story.

I was born in China in a pretty rural part of what is now Wuhan. Like many from rural communities back then and even now, my parents went to the city for work. So when I was little, I lived with my grandparents. One of my earliest memories was when I was playing around in my grandma’s kitchen, smelling her delicious cooking. I noticed she would put salt in her cooking pan and I hypothesized that it was the salt that made the food smell so good. So I sought out to test that hypothesis. I took a spoon of salt, held it up to my nose, and I took a big sniff (because that’s how you tell if something smells good, you sniff it). As you can imagine, the salt went up my nose and it really burned. From this experiment I was able to draw the conclusion that it was not the smell of salt that made the cooking smell good. Still today, I’m very much a hands-on learner and I believe things more strongly when I’m able to prove it to myself for better or worse.

I eventually moved to the US, I went to high school, and much like you all, towards the end of my final years in high school, I applied do a summer internship program to get exposure to the world of real science and research. I interned at the NIH, the government health research institute, to study the role of BRF2 in breast cancer pathogenesis, which is a very fancy way of saying I knocked a gene out of some breast cancer cell lines and checked to see if that affected how the cells grew. I worked alongside a post-bac in the lab Vonnie, who taught me how to run gels, culture cells, and pipette. Vonnie kept the neatest and most thorough lab notebook I had ever seen and most organized labels for all her test tubes in the liquid nitrogen tank.

I remember being really inspired by Vonnie. And I thought wow. Well I may be just a high school student now, when I get to be like her then I will be able to inspire young girls to pursue science the way she’s inspired me.

After high school, like many of you will, I went to college. In college, I continued engaging in research and joined the lab of Rachel Karchin to contribute to the lab’s work on predicting the functional impact of genetic variation. There was a PhD student in the lab Hannah, who was working on her own independent project and writing so many lines of code and doing all these machine learning benchmarks and publishing her work and having her work be used by others and cited.

I remember being really inspired by Hannah. And I thought wow. Well I may be just a college student now, but when I get to be like her then I will be able to inspire young girls to pursue science the way she’s inspired me.

After college, I really enjoyed the computational research I was doing so I decided to pursue a PhD in bioinformatics. My PhD program didn’t have many women. So spend time with more women, I joined HGWISE and became their co-chair. One of the events I had the pleasure of leading was our 10 year anniversary symposium where our keynote was given by Dr. Susan Lindquist, who sadly passed away from cancer a year later. Susan was the former director of the Whitehead, a professor of biology at MIT, an HHMI investigator, and a pioneer in molecular biology and the use of yeast models to study how heat shock proteins regulate gene expression and protein folding. Though to be honest, I remember very little of the science from her talk because frankly it went a little over my head. What I do very clearly recall was how she took the science that started in her lab and translated that into a company, where she made sure to hire a diverse team of C-suite executives and how excited she was for the company not just in its commercialization of the science and bringing it to market, but also for the career and leadership opportunities it provided for under-represented groups.

So of course I remember being really inspired by Susan. And I thought wow. Well I may just be a PhD student right now, but when I get to be a professor and world-renown scientist like her, then I will be able to inspire young girls to pursue science the way she’s inspired me.

So I wanted to tell you this story, because I hope it is clear, that at every stage of my scientific education and training, there was a woman who inspired me, a woman who I looked up to, a woman who paved the way, a woman whose visibility gave me some sense, that what I wanted to achieve and to aspire towards was fully possible.

It didn’t matter to me if, she was just a post-bac, or just a PhD student, or just this or just that. For me, at that time, her presence was enough. She was enough.

And what this means is that regardless of what stage we’re in in scientific education and training, regardless of how small and insignificantly we may some times seem or feel, there is always something we can do. Because whether we like it or not, there is always someone looking up to us.

So if you can, to the extent to which you are comfortable, I hope that you will be courageous enough to, be visible, to take up space, to make your voices and your stories be heard. Because even if you may some times think that you are “just a highschooler” (as I once did back when I was a highschooler) there is a middle schooler out there who sees you and looks up to you.

Today, I am an assistant professor in the center for computational biology at Johns Hopkins. I mentor a diverse team of students. We call ourselves the JEFworks Lab. We develop computational methods to analyze large-scale single-cell and spatial transcriptomics data to better understand how the spatial organization of genes inside cells and how the spatial organization of cells inside tissues relate to and impact function. We also make these computational methods available as open source software for the broader scientific community.

So this where my scientific origin story is currently, but of course, this is not where it will end.

In write this scientific origin story, there were many things I could have highlighted. But these were the aspects I chose to define my story. And I chose to not let certain other events define my story or define me.

All stories have an origin, including yours, and I hope that by continuing your education, be it in science or anything else, that you will gain the skills to not only shape this story but to choose how you would like this story to be shaped, both inside and outside yourself, and to choose which parts of this story, you would like to share and write about.

Thank you and I look forward to one day reading your scientific origin story.