Jenny Hsu is a medical writer based in San Francisco. She works for a global agency that provides communications for the biotech and pharma industries. She recently graduated from the PhD program in Genetics at Stanford, and in her free time she enjoys trail running and rock climbing. Here she talks about how her passions for science and writing shaped her science journey.
You probably know me. I’m the student who barely passed Biology. The left end of the bell curve, possibly skewing the exam score in your favor. You might even have cringed whenever the teacher called on me to answer a question. But nevertheless, I’m here to tell you about my science journey.
I know what you’re thinking – I’m here to inspire you with my eventual success as a biologist. Wrong – I don’t even work in a lab any more. Instead, I’m here to share how I found my own place in science, how I listened to what my gut was saying, and most importantly, how I decided to pursue that truth even when it scared me.
Unlike a lot of science stories, mine doesn’t begin with a burning interest in the natural world early in life. To be fair, my high school didn’t offer many science classes when I was there. It certainly didn’t offer Biology, and I drifted through my teenage years blissfully unaware that things like DNA and proteins existed. I had the vague notion that I was made up of cells, but that was about it.
What my high school did have, however, was English, and it was by far my best and favorite class. I scribbled over our school-issued paperbacks until every margin was covered with notes. I leapt on every unfamiliar word, looking it up in a dictionary, feeling out each syllable in my mind. I devoured all the assigned reading material in a matter of days and churned out dozens of literary analyses, loving the click of the keys on the keyboard, their weight under my fingers.
I had an inkling that my interests were valuable and unique somehow, like maybe reading through the night until the sun rose wasn’t everyone’s idea of fun. But because I could not see how these interests would help me financially support my harried immigrant mom and myself, I shelved that inkling away. Becoming an expert in a STEM field, I thought, would more readily lend itself to a stable and lucrative career.
So it was that I found myself in a large introductory biology class at Harvard, with no background in biology, surrounded by winners of international science fairs.
The first couple years were sleepless and soul crushing. Training my brain to think logically did not happen overnight, nor did memorizing the plethora of terms and experimental techniques. When presented with mock data and asked to analyze it, I didn’t know where to start. So at the end of a 1.5-hour exam, half the blanks were just that – blank, as blank as my brain.
And let’s not even go into my failures in lab. During my first lab class, when I lagged several steps behind everyone else, the girl next to me taught me how to properly use a pipette. I wanted to be her friend forever.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked biology, especially Genetics. The first time I took a long worm, mated it with a fat worm, and got an assortment of long and fat worms, I was floored. I’d started a research project in a worm lab in the hopes of becoming a better scientist, and my advisor was overwhelmingly supportive. He’d sit down with me on a ratty couch late at night, when the two of us were the only ones in lab, and draw worms on scraps of paper until I understood what we were doing.
I wanted to be like him – a confident problem solver who could logic his way out of every setback. So after a couple more years of going to sleep curled up with a textbook, and even a few A’s and an undergraduate thesis under my belt, I had somehow convinced myself that Genetics was my calling.
I graduated Harvard with a degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology, and after working in two stem cell labs to gain technical skills that did not involve picking worms and putting them down, found my way to the PhD program in Genetics at Stanford. There I embarked on my own research project, identifying a novel role for a gene in stem cell expansion. I thought up clever solutions, piloted new techniques, mingled with prominent scientists at cocktail receptions. It was all very bold, prestigious, and rewarding. I was doing what my mom wanted me to do.
Me (on the right) with my labmates and boss, shortly after I joined my PhD lab.
And throughout the entire experience, even at the best moments, it never felt right.
To give you an idea of how I felt about being a researcher, imagine trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, except the hole is teeny tiny, and the peg is wearing thin. Or imagine hanging out with a bunch of people who are all really excited about something, and pretending that you’re also excited about it, but actually feeling like you’re making small talk with some creep on the bus who’s sitting a little too close.
Okay so it wasn’t that bad. But the disconnect eventually became so obvious that I wondered whether more research would ever fix it.
Sometimes doing research made me feel trapped, like being inside this lab refrigerator.
There was one part of my PhD experience that felt right, however. It wasn’t reading the literature, designing experiments, setting them up on the bench, or analyzing the results (…basically all of research). But rather, I was happiest whenever I needed to put that process down in words. Write a review article. Make a presentation. Help a colleague write a grant. Hours would fly by and I wouldn’t even notice because I was so impossibly, inexplicably content.
By the time the 50th person had asked me to edit a confusing grant application and won tens of thousands of dollars with it, I realized I had something of value. It’s not like I was solely responsible for the person’s victory. But I saw that there is a need for conveying the abstract concepts and boatloads of data that come along with science, in a way that is clear, accurate, and exciting.
And I realized that through my writing, I could help other people in their science journeys. I could BE the nice girl with the pipette and the night owl advisor with the worm drawings. I could help people communicate science and understand science, and most importantly, I could do so without sacrificing my happiness.
With my mom the day I earned my PhD in Genetics!
Over the past few years, I have written about science in many different forums. A web column for a science museum. A business blog on biotech news. An interview with a researcher on his lab’s work. Now I write full-time at an agency that handles education and marketing for biotech, and my mom is happy to know that it pays well.
What I learned from this roundabout journey is, first of all, that it’s okay to have a roundabout journey. I don’t regret the 12 years of research when I felt weird and lonely, because I needed that time to understand what makes me tick. And I truly believe coming into communications as a researcher has given me a unique perspective.
The second thing I learned is that it’s okay to not be immediately good at what you’re doing. I’m not just talking about how I sucked at science through most of life – I don’t think I’ll be winning the Pulitzer any time soon either. But I think it’s important to like what you’re doing, enough to want to get better every day.
And finally, I learned that there are many ways to stay involved in science – not just as a researcher. I have met lawyers, consultants, policy makers, journalists, and many other experts in their fields who work tirelessly to advance scientific knowledge while avoiding the need to pipette.
I have also met researchers who struggle with their projects and face failure after failure, yet arrive at work every day with renewed interest and determination.
What I believe is that when something feels right, you’ll know. Even when others’ expectations and perceptions, my own doubt and my fears of failure, steered me towards a career in research, I knew in my gut that I wanted to be a writer. You can feel out of place in science even though you’re good at it, or struggle at science but want to be a scientist. But no matter what, trust your gut, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.