I finished my last semester of college pulling 3 AM thesis-writing sessions at the only restaurant that stayed open that late, chugging black teas and occasionally doing aerobics outside, making the other patrons uncomfortable. After turning in 98 pages of ramblings on embodied cognition, subjective value judgements, and creative AI, and then defending said ramblings to a room of my peers and professors, I was dead tired. I packed away the little wheeled robot I used in my thesis and spent a couple weeks sleeping at the beach.
It wasn’t long before I felt the existential panic set in, so I knew I had to start looking for the next step in my career and life. I found the opening for a research intern at the Kumar Lab by googling some combination of the words “science job biology computers intern”. Reading the job description, I immediately felt like it would be a good fit. I had been a bit of a jack-of-all-natural-science-trades in my college career, but my focus was broadly in biology, computer science, and neuroscience. I appreciated the inter-disciplinary mix of the lab, and the focus on multiple levels of explanation for behavioral phenomena. I applied to the lab and a few other positions before quitting my part time jobs and spending a month traveling.
After an initial phone and skype interview I was invited for an on-site interview at JAX. This was incredibly exciting as this was the position I cared about the most. I flew up to Bangor late September and made the drive to Bar Harbor. The next morning, I started my day long interview process at the lab. I got to talk to each member of the team and learn a little about their work, the lab, and about living in Bar Harbor. At the end of the day I participated in their weekly journal club, where they analyzed papers of interest. I found everyone to be very welcoming and the atmosphere more academic and relaxed than corporate and sterile. Once the interview was over, I took a drive around Acadia National Park and decided I was prepared to commit.
A couple weeks later, I was extended an offer by the lab and started preparing for the move. Housing is competitive on the island, but people are also very helpful and I was able to secure some temporary spots. I took my car and everything I could fit in it all the way from Florida to Maine over the course of 4 days. I stopped over at friends’ places to stretch my legs and sleep. It wasn’t until the last leg of my drive, when I had no more friends to see, that the magnitude of the life change started to hit me. In the rush to plan everything and say goodbyes before leaving I’d hardly had time to think about the choice I made. Initially I had felt relieved that I was about to have a Real Job in my field and that I was making progress in my plans. I felt lucky because I knew a lot of my peers hadn’t found a job in their field yet. This was a really amazing opportunity for me to build my skills and become competitive for graduate programs. Further, it gave me time to decide what kind of graduate program I was interested in pursuing. That said, I was very alone and out of my element. I felt like I had left my support network of friends, family, and my boyfriend. This would also be my first northern winter as a life-long Floridian. I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect of my day to day activities at work and whether I’d be able to step up to the tasks. So there was a bit of nervousness at the start.
Now that I’m four months into this journey, I can’t say it’s been smooth sailing the whole time. It started getting dark at 4 pm some days and that really does something to your brain. Living alone for the first time was quite lonely and allowed for some of my worst living habits to come to head. Everyone says this winter has been mild but to me it’s been very cold. I’ve learned to take advantage of sunny days, take vitamin D3 supplements, and be proactive about chores.
As for work, there are some distinct differences from the college experience. For one, I went from an environment surrounded by my peers to not really having any peers. Everyone I meet tends to be at a higher level in their career and education so there’s a gap in experience. My lab mates are a great resource when I get stuck and Google isn’t helping, but it’s not like they’re in the same class and working on the same homework problem. Second, working in a lab tends to be a lot more self-directed and unsupervised than in a class. Deadlines aren’t imposed by a professor and the scope of the project isn’t pre-determined. I found scheduling timelines with tasks and to re-evaluate the path being taken every so often to be helpful. However, just like in classes I’m doing a lot of reading, a lot of debugging, and a lot of learning. It’s been great to see the process of research first hand, especially at a powerhouse of a lab like JAX. Science and academia are such funny endeavors and seeing all the pieces and people that make it possible is very interesting. I still have a lot to learn and improve on, but I’m feeling pretty excited to grow as a person and a scientist.