07 November 2014

How did I get here? Learning to love research.

I grew up in southern Indiana, in an area stuck mid-way between small town and big city (Evansville). I thought biology and music were both pretty cool in high school. I applied to colleges in a haphazard way, auditioning on flute for some schools, and checking out biology programs at others. I eventually ended up at Western Kentucky University, mostly because of the generous academic scholarship they offered me and the WKU Forensics (Speech and Debate) team. I had competed in high school, and had lots of friends who were also on the team, so it seemed like fun thing to do. After spending so much time my first semester practicing, traveling, and competing for speech, I declared my major in my second semester as something like "corporate and organizational communications," although I really lacked an understanding of what a job in such a field would entail. I stuck with a minor in biology, since I'd already taken a semester of introductory classes. My reasoning for this adjustment was that, although biology was interesting, I didn't want to be a doctor. Moreover, I literally couldn't imagine spending years of my life working on the same biological research question. 

That spring, I went to a departmental seminar for biology because I thought it sounded interesting. My professor for introductory biology, Larry Alice, saw me there and suggested I start working for him doing research. Not one to balk at offered opportunities, I relented and started learning how to sequence DNA to determine the evolutionary relationships among species of grass. It only took a semester of actually performing research to realize how gratifying it can be. I switched my major to biology within a few months, this time keeping communications (and also history) as minors.

05 November 2014

Casting a wide net.

I was fortunate as a post-doc at NESCent to have a huge community of like-minded scholars to help me develop intellectually. I'm still very fortunate to be surrounded by folks doing awesome research, but I was hired specifically to fill a missing niche (bioinformatics) in the department. That means I need to work extra hard to find ways to connect with my new students and colleagues. While my skills are definitely desired and I have lots to contribute, many things I'm doing simply haven't been done here before, so I'm thinking creatively about how to fit in on campus. I'm doing my best to think broadly (cast a wide net), while at the same time focusing my time and energy on tasks that will have an impact (and hopefully catch a few big fish).

The benefit of working as a bioinformaticist is that I can work with anyone who has data (hint: that means pretty much everyone). My specialty as a genomicist also makes me well suited for the emerging interests of other folks on campus. I've been sitting down to talk to lots of folks about opportunities for collaboration on such projects. It's incredibly interesting to learn about different model systems, and gratifying to know that I can contribute to such a breadth of projects. At the very least, I can save folks time by providing a bit of information in current genome assembly methods, for instance.

It's easy enough to work with folks in other science departments, but I've been casting an even wider net. I was delighted when a friend from the history department came over for a chat about filtering data. He had a large digital dataset of documents and was looking through them for a particular type of data. Luckily, that type of data was always described with a particular string of text. Three lines of bash scripting later, and we managed to save him days of work. I've long been interested in these broad approaches to academia, and even attended a THATCamp meeting at NCState several months back. My brain works best when building connections between seemingly disparate ideas, so a little bit of my time in pursuing small projects like that helps keep me happy.

The unexpected returns are also nice: getting to know folks over in nursing, for example, let me know about better ways to teach in ways for which they are distinguished: applied methods (for which bioinformatics certainly applies) as well as online classes. At the risk of extending the metaphor too far, casting a wide net is making the fishing expedition of research and academia more appealing to me.