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What do neuroscientists do all day?
Welcome to Part 1 in the 2-part “Life in the Lab” Series. In this episode, we’re going to experience a day in the life, hour by hour, of Dr. Thu Huynh, a Post-doc Neuroscientist at Cornell, so you can decide if this is a career you can see yourself doing! If research and science excites you and you’re curious about how the brain works, this could be a career for you.
Mat [00:01:07] Welcome to Part 1 In the two part Life in the Lab Series. In this episode we’re going to experience a day in the life hour by hour of Doctor Thu Win, a postdoc. Neuroscientists at Cornell. So you can decide if this is a career you can see yourself doing. If research and science excites you and you’re curious about how the brain works this could be the career for you. Let’s get right into the day.
Krista [00:01:38] It’s six thirty on a Thursday morning in New York City and Dr. Win is woken up by her son Dylan. Mornings are precious for her. It’s time she gets to spend with their family without any distractions. After she nurses and cuddles she gets ready and heads out the door by 8 a.m. with her husband after daycare drop off and their workout class. They go their separate ways and Dr. Winn is ready to start the day.
Mat [00:02:00] Today on the agenda as a whole, Dr. Win is performing experimental surgeries attending a seminar analyzing neuron activity and programming in Matlab. Let’s meet Dr. Winn and learn more about what she does.
Thu H [00:02:16] I am Thu Win, I am a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Well Cornell medicine. I have a Ph.D. from NYU and neuroscience and then now I’m doing an additional step of training. I started in my Ph.D. by studying kind of learning and memory and molecular process underlying how we form memories. And so then when I started my postdoc it was important to me to expand my technical tool belt and so I knew of. PI principal investigator at Cornell who has state of the art imaging techniques and so that was something that I really wanted to learn was important for me to have in my career and so contacted him and I started my postdoc around five or six months after finishing my PHD.
Thu H [00:03:01] probably my parents are the same way. So it’s a postdoctoral fellow so it’s postdoctoral. So basically after your doctoral degree an additional step of training before you would seek your other job like tenure track faculty or something industry consulting something like it’s just it’s more training underneath someone where you have a mentor but the reins are a little bit looser than they would be during your PHD for instance.
Thu H [00:03:25] Pre baby. You know my wake up was eight thirty sometimes even nine, sometimes nine thirty. You know and I’m like labs they sometimes function very late and so in my head I was like you know I don’t need to wake up early so why would I wake up early. So I just wouldn’t. So I come into lab at 10 but you know many times if I come into lab at 930 you know there’s no one there which is you know like I don’t know. Not many other jobs I think would be like that.
Krista [00:03:51] Thu’s first order of business is to schedule a time to pump. Cornell has a room dedicated for nursing and working mothers which is so convenient for Thu but the competition is real to secure a spot every day. After that she’s checking her emails and then it’s off to the basement for an experiment of hers.
Mat [00:04:06] more specifically she’s performing a surgery on an etty bitty mouse brain. We would explain but we’ll leave it to the expert.
Thu H [00:04:14] And so on this day I’m planning to do surgeries and so I am injecting this nontoxic virus that allows me to visualize the activity of neurons by also implanting a fiber optic in the brain. These surgeries they take maybe two or three hours each and I’m stuck in the basement doing them. And so you know like when I get in I have to gather all of the things that I need to go downstairs in the basement and you know there’s always a little checklist you have to bring down otherwise you’ve to come back it up and down to get all of the materials that you need. So the bag that I bring down I have a little container of dry ice. I have a container of ice. I have the virus and then I have my surgery toolbox. That kind of has everything that I need in there.
Thu H [00:05:02] It isn’t a solution yet. Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.
Thu H [00:05:05] Just.
Thu H [00:05:08] Green is green. Yeah. Yeah. Wow.
Thu H [00:05:15] So it’s based off of the green green fluorescent protein which is the protein that like jellyfish and like phytoplankton have for bioluminescence. It’s a modified GFP. I’m with my hands and under a microscope. It’s called a stereo scope but it basically and it’s not super magnified but this is a mouse brain we’re talking about and so you have to be very precise with where you’re injecting these viruses. Yes.
Thu H [00:05:48] Yes. Too much coffee is not good.
Krista [00:05:53] Going back to your experiment you said after a few weeks of expression. Yeah it takes a long time for you to get the results that you need. Right. Yeah. It’s about like four weeks or so. Yeah. What do you do in the meantime? Like towards that experiment. Or do you work on something else.
Thu H [00:06:08] Yeah. I will work on something else I’ll do analysis of a previous experiment that I’ve done these experiments. You know like from start to finish they can be like a month and a half. So if I plan it well then I’ll do surgery before going on vacation or before conference because I know I’m going to be gone and that’s just downtime for virus to express.
Krista [00:06:29] so I just want to kind of go into because you have a lot of check points that you wanted to hit in picking a program and then the lab as well. What are the things that people should be looking for when picking them.
Thu H [00:06:41] that’s a great question. So you’ll get a lot of different answers for this as well you know people some people will say. Find what you want to research and make that you’re number one. But I would say that the lab environment and dynamic and your principal investigator your P.I. are like two of the most important factors to keep in mind when finding a lab because these are the people that you spend every day with if there is like unhealthy competition it can make your day totally miserable. You want to feel like the people in the lab have your back and that they support you even if they’re not your friend. You know you don’t have to be friendly with everyone in the lab. You have, you have to support that the lab is a family and the health of the lab like everyone benefits from that and having a healthy lab environment is super critical. And the principal investigator you know every P.I. mentors in a different way. And so when I was interviewing at this postdoc I asked my P.I. you know like what was what is your mentoring style and he’s a very new professor.
Thu H [00:07:44] And so I couldn’t talk to anyone to kind of get their feedback but he said You know I said you’re new but what do you envision your mentoring style to be and I still remember exactly what he said because I love this statement. He said I like people to work at the limits of their own independence. Oh yeah right. Oftentimes in the labs you’ll hear people or mentors described as very hands off. And that is what I would call my P.I. is that they don’t you know they’re not micro managers. They don’t follow you day to day. They don’t stroll into lab to make sure that you’re there and doing things they trusted if you are productive and are showing results that like lab meeting that you’re doing your job and you can manage your time properly such that they don’t need to be like looking over your shoulder. But there are some people that do benefit from like the micromanaging type. You know there are people that benefit from having multiple checkpoints throughout their month even having like weekly meetings with their professors and so it kind of depends on how you work the best. And that does not mean that you need to know that about yourself a little bit but I know that I work the best with a very hands off P.I. which my p HD advisor was as well. And so I think that being paired with a P.I. That doesn’t jive with the way that you work the best. It’s something definitely to keep in mind because it’s not a good situation. I think if it’s not cohesive.
Krista [00:09:02] Have you ever worked in an environment where there are lab mates that were really competitive and like what. Why do you think the reason is?
Thu H [00:09:11] Yes. One of the labs that I worked in had a lot of competition and it was very divisive. People wouldn’t help each other. There was a lot of back talking and it just it doesn’t feel good. And I will also say that it’s hard to be on either side of like a division of a lab. You know even if these are people that you really support you know like having these feelings day to day it’s not healthy to be around you know and so I think just like staying above it in general is the way to try and be, It’s sometimes unavoidable.
Krista [00:09:51] Now it’s noon and Dr. Win is finished with her surgery and waiting for the mouse to recover as soon as he does she grabs her equipment heads back upstairs and grabs lunch with some of her mates. 1:00 p.m. rolls around and it’s time for her pumping appointment. 1.30, she attends a seminar.
Thu H [00:10:08] the lab that I’m in with a couple of other labs at Cornell. We have the Sackler seminar series. And so every Thursday during the school year we’ll give presentations from the labs. We sometimes invite outside speakers to talk about relevant work and. Because these are other labs that we’re also very friendly with. It’s really nice to get feedback from those labs on ongoing research.
Thu H [00:10:29] It’s just kind of like a bigger lab meeting where you can get the input of other graduate students postdocs professors and it’s really nice to get like outside eyes especially because the whole process of research is eventually to submit your work to a peer reviewed publication like other people are going to see it anyway and they’re going to judge your work. And excuse me so it’s nice to get that feedback beforehand so there’s like a schedule and different labs have different people present and so there’s today there’s another postdoc from another lab that’s giving her work and she’s doing awesome things and was a really great example of just everyone kind of talking about the work together and like a really friendly environment.
Thu H [00:11:10] Now it’s time for coffee. No more mice. Yeah. Now I get to have coffee I get an ice double tall white mocha. OK. Night.
Thu H [00:11:25] Sometimes with Whip. I give my Starbucks name is Meghan.
[00:11:35] I know exactly.
[00:11:36] they’re like with an H. I’m like it doesn’t it doesn’t matter.
Mat [00:11:40] the time is now 3:00 p.m. and Thu begins working on an off line analysis with MATLAB while she waits for the virus from today’s experiment to express. Thu has a love hate relationship with MATLAB. This first blossomed when she was studying for her PHD.
Thu H [00:11:55] Coming in to a lab that needs Matlab is very intimidating. I was very intimidating and intimidating. I know a lot of people are intimidated by it and I know that I will never be as good as someone with the programming background but I can do a little bit. And so it was important to me to learn the little bit that I could you know. Although I did have the major mental block of being like this is going to be impossible for me I’m never going to get there but I will say that you know like a little bit of like imposters then yeah for sure.
Thu H [00:12:28] But you know I also would say in the lab when you were learning something new there’s always a little bit of a mental block at least for me that’s like I’m not you know like this is going to be really tough to learn. But then once I actually get in it and I learn it then I’m like oh that wasn’t so bad. Matlab is still like we have a love hate relationship I would say but I’m getting better at it and I actually kind of enjoy it.
Thu H [00:12:47] What’s nice is that a lot of people use kind of the same techniques and so there are like scripts that are available online that you can download as packages which is awesome and but then you have to apply them to your own work and sometimes they don’t work right. So I remember one day I have two people that I work with that are very good with computers and I found something that didn’t work with my code and I didn’t. That didn’t work with the videos and I ended up having to email the person who made the code and he was like Oh yeah well I’ll go ahead and change this and my two friends were like you found a bug in the code and I was like What. And they were like Yeah you found a bug and I was like No I just I found something that doesn’t work with my video. And then like yeah that’s a bug. I was like oh OK so.
Krista [00:13:31] and the video is what you’re taking when you inject the nontoxic virus right.
Thu H [00:13:35] so that’s what I take after the virus is done and it’s being expressed here. So that’s like when the mouse’s behaving and all the neurons are firing. Yes so that’s cool. Exactly I’m trying to analyze those videos. Yeah. So that whole day anyone that I knew that was in Engineering I was like Hey I found a bug in my code today and I still I still don’t really know what that means.
Thu H [00:14:05] No. Definitely not. I didn’t. I still. I know I know like buzz words and that’s it. So I. Rob. He is one of the MD PhD students in the lab. He is like he’s one of the people that I mentioned that’s very good. He has a programming background also and he went to Cornell for undergrad and he is amazing and probably has like the most patients in the world you could possibly imagine because he helps everybody in the lab that doesn’t have programming experience in that I can’t imagine how hard that must be for him but I’m not one of those people and I’m lucky that I sit right behind him so I can pester him. I try not to do it too often but it’s so nice.
Thu H [00:14:41] Yeah it started it started at the beginning with you know he was very hands on with me but then I got to a point I was like why I don’t want to bother him all the time and I would try and work through these things because oftentimes they are just small manipulations in the code that will then allow it to run properly and it is gratifying to find that without his help because you know as sometimes I would see him be like oh this is what’s wrong. This is what’s wrong and so now I try to do that myself and then and then eventually get to a point where I can’t figure it out.
Thu H [00:15:09] And sometimes he’ll sit down with me he can’t figure it out either which makes me feel pretty good that’s like okay it wasn’t like a super easy way I could have figured out myself.
Mat [00:15:18] now it’s 430 and Dr. Win has had enough programming for the day.
[00:15:22] so all I’ll get to a point where I can’t figure out what’s going on Rob will come try and help me. He can’t figure out what’s going on. I’m like Okay this clearly this problem is not going to be solved today. I don’t have the bandwidth through this anymore. I’m frustrated like I’m done. I’m we’re shutting nothing computer. I’m going home, so then I take off to go pick up my son and so he goes to bed at seven thirty so I try to leave to pick him up by 5:00 because you know like at uni now see that I don’t get that much time with him during the day and that’s its really hard. So I try and pick him up by 5:00 so at least get a couple of hours with him before he goes down for the day. So I go pick him up at 5:00 and we’re home by 530 and we get to hang out until his bedtime routine starts at 7:00.
Krista [00:16:05] At 730 Dylan is sleeping and Dr. Wynne and her husband have dinner in front of the TV with the volume on 10 and the subtitles on. They don’t want to wake up the baby.
Krista [00:16:15] Do you do any work like research from home.
Thu H [00:16:18] So sometimes what I like to do in the evening is kind of set up my schedule for either the next day or the next couple of weeks to just make sure I’m in line with all of the things that I need to do and check the bookings of everything because you know they have to be reserved in advance.
Mat [00:16:34] so that wraps up a day in Dr. Wynn’s life as a neuroscientist. But before we move to part two let’s learn what helped her get through the day in the lab.
Thu H [00:16:42] Perseverance I would say. I mean you have to have in research you will encounter so many failed experiments and it’s hard to not let it get you down. You just have to keep going and not let it affect you. And perseverance also you know like you can apply for grants you’re going to get turned down No you’re going to get turned down more than you can out probably more than you will get accepted. So it’s important to just like stay the course and persevere.
Krista [00:17:11] so you just experienced a day in the life of a neuroscientist. But how does one actually become a neuroscientist. In part two of the life in the lab series. Join us as we go through Dr. Win’s career journey and experiences leading up to where she is today. Her story will clear up some things about navigating academia and highlight skills you’ll definitely want to know about before you make this important investment into your career. Stay tuned.
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In Part 1 we went through hour by hour a day in Dr. Thu Huynh’s life as a Post-doc Neuroscientist. In this episode, we’ll take you through Thu’s career journey so you know what skills and experience are necessary to land a job as a Neuroscientist. Her story will clear some things up about navigating academia and highlight skills that you’ll definitely want to know about before you make this important investment in your career!
Mat [00:01:09] Welcome to Part 2 in the two part Life in the Lab Series. In part one we went through hour by hour and a day in Dr. Thu Win’s life as a postdoc neuroscientist. In this episode we’ll take you through Thu’s career journey so you know what skills and experiences are necessary to land a job as a neuroscientist. Her story will clear up some things about navigating academia and highlight skills that you’ll definitely want to know about before you make this important investment into your career. Let’s learn how she did it so you can too.
Mat [00:01:41] Thu went to the University of Arizona and studied molecular and cellular biology with the hopes of getting into medical school.
Thu H [00:01:48] I spent the majority my formative years thinking that I wanted to go into medicine. I always wanted to be a doctor and that was my plan even upon graduating college. But I didn’t get in. After I don’t I don’t even if I applied my senior year of college. But you know getting into medical school these days is very competitive. It requires like stellar undergraduate grades great and cat score tons of research volunteer work and things like that. You know a lot of things have to align and so when I graduated college I knew that I had to you know expand my portfolio get some more coursework under my belt and start doing research when he didn’t which I didn’t really do in college.
Krista [00:02:24] She might not have gotten the research experience she needed for med school during undergrad but did partake in her passion for teaching as a math and science tutor for high school students.
Thu H [00:02:35] I have always loved teaching for like a very long time and especially the subjects that I loved the most I really love to like someone was struggling with that I wanted to like help them through it just because I loved like chemistry so much that if I saw you struggling with chemistry you really want to see if I could be the one to like crack the code. Exactly.
Thu H [00:02:55] And so when I was in college I sought a tutoring position and worked for a tutoring club where I tutored high school students in math and science.
Mat [00:03:03] how much did you learn that just by teaching.
Thu H [00:03:05] I learned that I didn’t know somethings that I thought I knew. I tutored this student in AP chemistry and even after taking like a couple semesters in chemistry in college I was like whoa this this is still a little bit above my head. Yeah.
Mat [00:03:21] after earning her bachelor’s degree she moved back home and took classes to gear up for medical school. It was then when she had her light bulb moment and pivoted her career path.
Thu H [00:03:31] And so I took some classes at ASU and started doing research in behavioral neuroscience with the intention of being like I want to get into medical school and know that I need to do research but through this I discovered this whole other side of science that I never really knew existed and I think part of that was because it was an area of research that really piqued my interest I guess because I in retrospect I did spend a summer of biochemistry lab which was great. But you know it was studying photosynthesis which I wasn’t really that interested in. So kind of having the bridge between like the science that I learned in the classroom but also like direct application to you know the brain. It was really neat for me to have.
[00:04:10] Speaking of experience, Thu’s one of many pieces of advice to premed students is take your research requirement seriously. I totally support premed students that are going to do research but I always say that that if you really love science that you should really love research and you don’t have to spend your life doing it. I totally get people that do it. But you know you should take it seriously and see this side that is really enriching and can enrich what you learn in the classroom that’s different than what you learn in medical school you know.
Krista [00:04:41] did you know that you didn’t need your masters to get your PHD. I certainly didn’t. Thu says if you want to get into A PHD program for neuroscience there’s a job that can get you the experience you need and you won’t have to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for your masters.
Thu H [00:04:56] There is some merit to the Masters right. There is additional coursework and there is a research experience with a major downfall about it is that it’s paid out of pocket unless you’re lucky and you can get some kind of scholarship which does exist but not they’re not like very ubiquitous Yeah. So for the person who is planning to get A PHD my major recommendation always is to get a technician job. The technician job will get you the research experience that you need it’s paid. And if you’re at a university oftentimes they’ll give you like 12 credits that you can take as being a university employee. So the technician is someone that is going to do you like some of the ancillary lab work. It will start with the Like lower responsibility things like doing the dishes for the lab which you know like a lot of tedious things that need to be done. You can do ordering which also the lab manager does but slowly if you show your worth, Then they’ll give you maybe a little side project that the lab has been meaning to do to give you kind of your own experience and own project which is really important to have when you’re trying to enter like the land of research get your foot in the door.
Mat [00:06:01] how do students go about getting those jobs. Is it just. Or are they on job boards or sometimes you just have to cold email tons of labs and just very short. So the kind of PIs or professors are notorious for not fully reading emails. I think as many of us are. But kind of the key is to write one or two sentences. I’m so-and-so, this is my experience. Are you looking for this? And in fact that was like similar to the email that I sent when I was trying to find a postdoc you know. Short and sweet are really good. Typically if someone’s looking for a technician or lab manager they’ll see that in one email immediately so and then I guess the point is that once you have the technician job you get the research experience. That’s what you really need to get into a PhD program and PhD programs are fully paid most of the time in STEM not fully paid a lot of they are fully OK.
Krista [00:06:55] So we know now that most masters programs will make you pay out of pocket and PhD programs are mostly funded but there’s so much work that goes into getting your PhD that I bet you’re wondering how she can afford to like I don’t know Live. Thu told us that most universities give out stipends based off the cost of living of the state the universities in. Thu got a stipend of thirty two thousand dollars a year for being in New York City.
Thu H [00:07:20] Depending on the number of hours that you work you know like that the hourly rate is not great but you’re good like building equity and exactly a dollar. Exactly. And then if you go to someplace like Columbia or Cornell you have you have subsidized housing. Which is super helpful as we know in New York.
Mat [00:07:37] so I want to ask about like just the culture of getting PhD. Do you have a community that you fall back on? Is it like Are you friends with the kids sitting next to you or the man guy girl sitting next.
Thu H [00:07:49] You know people talk a lot about the mental health of graduate students these days because you know it is important to have a big community and someone to fall back on and sometimes you don’t and sometimes you do. And I would say that you know it’s super important to find that community anywhere that you can. And so for me when I had just started my p HD I started with I think it was 12 other students I was in a cohort of Tulsa. These PhD courts are typically very small unless they’re part of an umbrella program which is like a lot of different disciplines. Once in one. But for neuroscience it was just 12 of us. So we were very tight knit. My first year and then. Following my first year at least in my curriculum you find a lab your second year and then that kind of became my family and at least in my PGD lab you we got paired with a postdoc who kind of was the one to take you under their wing and teach you everything that you know so if you get really lucky as I did get paired with a great mentor then that’s kind of the person that you learn everything from but also really rely on for like emotional support during like the difficult times in the deep.
Krista [00:08:54] and then I did some research on like the course structure of the program. And at first the first year is just like core classes yeah kind of like undergrad as well. And then the second two to three years you’re you know focusing on your area of study and then you have the option to become a T.A.
Thu H [00:09:12] Yes definitely. I was just I think what you’d mentioned Matt before about learning is you teach was really important for me also as a T.A. because I took coursework my first year my PhD and then I started teaching I think my third fourth and fifth year of my page I didn’t extra semester of teaching because I loved it so much. But you know like when I was teaching for an intro to neuroscience class it is introductory but at NYU you know the neuroscience majors actually quite tough you get re exposure to all of these things that maybe you haven’t touched in a while and so then it kind of if you’re doing research at the time it’s like oh that’s something that I didn’t think might apply and so then you can kind of go back to your own work and it was just it was really nice because you know as I mentioned if the students they get the single exposure to the professor a couple times a week you know. But if you’re too shy to go to office hours the is really important for undergrads. They feel a little bit more comfortable asking questions that they wouldn’t otherwise the professor. And it was really nice for me to have that experience.
Mat [00:10:16] her days as a Ph.D. student were hectic to say the least. With that being said Thu says you have to ask for help.
Thu H [00:10:24] I think that that was something that I didn’t know how to do so well at the beginning my PhD was how to balance and also know what my own limitations were. And so yeah when I trained undergrads or graduate students now I am always very firm about you know set realistic expectations for yourself. I was very bad at that. So I think that was not something that I try to pass along.
Mat [00:10:44] what was graduation like.
Thu H [00:10:45] Graduation was super anticlimactic really. Yeah yeah well it depends.
Thu H [00:10:51] so what happens in the PhD is that you have to schedule your defense so you’re defending your research that you’ve done through your whole PhD. You have to schedule it in line with one of the school’s graduations in the calendar year so that’s three of them right. You have the spring and summer and winter graduation so typically all of the defenses happen in May August or December. And that’s kind of the’s the graduation. So that is really celebratory. It’s your defense, you’re defending the research that you’ve done for the past four or five years in front of the whole department. And then after your public talk and your committee which you formed during your PhD consists of depending on the school four principal investigators or professors that are in the department that know kind of your field of research they guide your research throughout your PhD but they’re also the ones to eventually give you your PhD. So you give your public talk and then they take you into a room and they kind of grill you about big picture questions. Sometimes they’ll read your hundred plus page dissertation and go through things that they saw.
Thu H [00:11:56] Sometimes they don’t read them. That wasn’t my experience I got copies of my dissertation back that had notes scribbled in them.
Krista [00:12:04] so what do you mean like they don’t read them.
Thu H [00:12:07] Sometimes they sometimes they don’t. They’re very long. They’re really long and you definitely need it but then they’re sort of the argument that maybe it’s a little bit of a formality. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take it seriously. I think it’s like it’s a personal feat type thing.
Krista [00:12:21] I always thought that once graduation day hits you’re done and you move on to the next task at hand. In Thu’s case more research. But sometimes there’s more work to be done.
Thu H [00:12:30] so the thing about research is your success is judged by the number of publications that you have. You can get straight A’s in your PhD but if you even after graduating have zero papers with your name on it that’s you know not the most successful experience and so this is a research that you do during your PhD. This is what the goal eventually is to submit your work to a peer reviewed journal and then to get it published so you can listen on your CV. So if you look at a science CV you’ll see at the very top and one of the first things is peer reviewed publications and that’s where people look to see your productivity. And if you’re in research that’s what people really care about. And so I had a couple of papers and my Peachtree but I was wrapping one of my projects up and so I needed a couple of months. So sometimes the piece of defense is not commensurate with like finishing your time in the lab.
Thu H [00:13:20] Oftentimes people will stick around for a little bit longer to wrap up the research because like if you don’t have that published then it’s almost meaningless. So from my PhD, I had three first author papers. .
Thu H [00:13:34] Exactly. So. So the lab work is super collaborative. There’s always people that have their hands in the project and it’s important that you give them credit to that. So that’s to put their name on the paper and so when I had mentioned the technician job being a really good stepping stone is if you’re if you play your cards right then you’ll get onto a paper that’s going to be published. And that really matters for getting into a PhD program.
Krista [00:13:55] so then what are the actions needed to be like a second name or third.
Thu H [00:14:01] Second name, Often is significant work also put in with the first author. Oftentimes these days we’re seeing co first author these are people that contributed equally and as importantly to the paper and then anybody basically I mean it’s a matter of ethics to write if someone helps you with their project then they should be given credit for it. And so this is also something that has to be discussed before you start working on a project as to ensure that you will get the credit that you deserve.
Mat [00:14:29] Can we get into the specifics of what research you are doing as much specifics as you can get it.
Thu H [00:14:35] Sure. Okay. So when I was in my PHD my initial question was how memory consolidation occurs and so memory consolidation is the process of how a memory becomes long lasting and I studied the molecular mechanisms of how this occurs. So I study the role of a new protein synthesis in this using a mouse model. And so in this mouse model we use a modified form of like Pavlovian associative conditioning so we all know the study of Paul Lavin his dogs wear a bell would ring and a dog would get food right. And so when the food is presented the dog salivates because he’s hungry and then the dog learns to associate the sound of the bell with the food. And so as soon as he hears the bell then the dog starts to salivate. And this conditioned response is what we call a conditioned response and this conditioned response is a memory a memory of the Bell being a predictor of food. And so I study kind of this process in a mouse model using aversive conditioning. So here instead of food, the mice receive a little bit of a shock after a tone is being played.
Thu H [00:15:36] And so what the mouse learns then is that the tone predicts this mild foot shock and then in subsequent presentations of the tone they’ll freeze a little bit because they anticipate being shocked. And so this is a really robust kind of memory that you can study. And we know the brain regions that are involved with this memory process. And so I studied that in my PGD and I transitioned now into my postdoc by studying kind of the neural circuits that are involved with this process by using some of the imaging techniques the imaging techniques these days are. I mean they’re neuroscience is advancing like at a very very fast rate and it’s very cool it’s a very cool time to be in neuroscience but we have these viruses that are non-toxic. And when you put them in the brain they will allow the neurons to flash on and off when they’re active. And you can capture this activity with a fiber optic and kind of say something about how the neural dynamics associate with behavior In this case the conditioning that I was talking about.
Thu H [00:16:37] so I defended my PhD in September of 2015. I got married November of 2015 and then we went to Italy in December 2015 and I started my postdoc January of 2016. And for me it was this very weird moment because you know I’d been working so hard to get my PhD and then I got married and there were all these really big life events right. And some you know like a lot of these things are like checkboxes you know as you’re growing up it’s like why need to do this I need to do this and then and then for me before shooting my postdoc I was like Man all of these things are done whereas my life going now you know.
Thu H [00:17:17] And I remember being in Italy and thinking oh man I only have five more days left a vacation four days left three days left and then I realized that you know at this point in my life just being present and in the moment and not looking too far back and not looking to for Ford was really important for me and just to kind of live and enjoy every moment. And just to be present.
Thu H [00:17:39] So I think that mentality in starting my postdoc was really important for me and what I also didn’t realize was that I was starting completely new work and I forgot how exciting that was right. You know near the end of your PhD you’re starting to do experiments that you kind of put off for a while or you are doing them to have appropriate controls for you the papers that I talked about and it gets kind of tedious and boring at the end and so I think that that was kind of mixed into my feelings and I forgot how fun science was. Yeah January is starting my postdoc was a really fun time for me actually.
Krista [00:18:13] so you were pregnant with your son Dylan while you were doing your postdoctoral. Correct yes. Like what was that like? Because I know I’ve read a lot of horror stories.
Thu H [00:18:23] Yes it can be very scary and you know like science is really big on Twitter actually. And so there’s always these Twitter threads that go on about people that are pregnant and maternity leave and how you know people in science are not that well taken care of sometimes. But I would say that my experience was a very positive one just because my P.I. was super supportive. I know a lot of people when they get pregnant are a little bit scared or reluctant to tell their bosses you know of course I was a little bit nervous but my boss is really supportive when I told him about it and like anything that I needed to be comfortable he was all for you know like especially with the chemicals in the lab that you know like a pregnant woman shouldn’t be around.
Mat [00:19:06] all right I didn’t even think of that. Yeah exactly. What precautions did you have to take?
Thu H [00:19:10] So one of the drugs that we use is a fixative for the brain that is like a carcinogen it’s parrot paraffin formaldehyde like 100 percent of pregnant women should not be using it. Exactly. So yeah my lab mates were really helpful if I ever needed to do something with those chemicals they would do it for me. It’s unfortunate because I know a lot of people that have not had great experiences. My boss is really flexible with my maternity leave. You know he kind of let me dictate the terms of that. And again other people have not had that same experience. The maternity leave I think is six weeks with 50 percent pay and you know like postdocs the salaries it’s not great. I think the NIH minimum requirement is 47000. So if you’re getting paid half of that.
Krista [00:19:59] So speaking of women’s issues what would you say to women who are hesitant to get started or to keep going in the medical field their STEM profession. And have you ever had any experiences where you’ve faced misogyny or sexism.
Thu H [00:20:17] I mean I think in general being a woman in STEM is tough because you know like there are a lot PHC programs are many postdoc positions are many but there is a major bottleneck when you go from a postdoc to faculty for instance which used to be the career trajectory that was the norm. You know you. That’s what you would do. And you would only do a postdoc for a little bit. Was intentionally originally designed to be like little parking space for you until you can get your tenure track faculty position. But nowadays people are doing their postdocs for a many years. And you know if your productivity is judged based on the number of applications you have to be very productive during those periods which means being in the lab a lot and it’s difficult to juggle kids and it costs a lot of money you know. And so one of the big questions in science like when is a good time to have kids. Nobody knows when the good time to have kids is you know many people it’s just that just do it.
Thu H [00:21:17] There’s no good time to have kids you know during your postdoc you need to get papers it’s really busy not a good time when you’re a new professor you’re trying to get tenure not a good time. But I mean you kind of have to go for it and make it work. And that is that has kind of been my experience is just to find what you love and just to continue going for it. And as long as you still love it just a little bit cross your fingers that things will fall into place but also find the right support systems in terms of your friends or you know the right boss and someone that supports you and not just your career but like your life.
Mat [00:21:51] Dr. Win is also an associate professor at Hunter College during the school year. She teaches behavioral pharmacology the study of all the drugs and the influence they have on your brain and behavior. It was important to her to find a postdoc program that also allowed her to teach.
Thu H [00:22:07] my love teaching and so it was important to me to get that experience and there are a couple of NIH sponsored fellowships for postdocs that allow you to teach and do research at the same time. So I was really gunning for one of those positions but unfortunately none of the research labs kind of aligned with the locations for where my husband was going to eventually be. And so this is this is kind of an internal struggle for me because that fellowship was I was like it’s perfect for me. It has everything that I want and it gives dedicated teaching time right. And so when I found the lab that I am now in you know it was also very important for me to find a lab that I was very interested in and that was my number one number two close number two is teaching but I when I started my postdoc in my head I was like You know I have to find a way to get the teaching experience that I want. And so. I would go online and I would look up all of the colleges around NYC. I tried to contact my NYU professors to see if anybody would have me. But you know being a postdoc and teaching at a place like NYU is you know usually those jobs are reserved for full professors or assistant professors.
Thu H [00:23:19] so there was no space for me there. And so then I started emailing some of the city universities and got in touch with Hunter College that adjunct administrator and I actually was emailing several months in advance. I emailed the August when I finished my Peachtree and nobody responded to me. And then I emailed again I think in December was like you know just reaching back out I am. This is my expertise. This is you know I would really love a teaching position. And it just happened that the person was scheduling for the spring semester at the time and was able to fit me in in this and behavioral pharmacology class.
Mat [00:23:56] Dr. Winn and her family moved to Arizona where she’ll be finishing up her postdoc research remotely. This will be her third year coming up. But she told us postdoc programs on average last four to six years before we go. Dr. Winn has some closing advice for you. Progress is progress.
Thu H [00:24:14] you know it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing as long as you’re making forward progress. And I say that because you know when I was 18 I was like Oh I’d never do an NDP HD because that would take so long you know. But here I am. I finished my speech day I think when I was 30. You know and that was never my life plan. But I was always moving forward and when I was in it didn’t feel like ages. And I think that when you’re in school for so long it’s you have to not think of it so much as school and just think of it as progress in moving towards your goals. And it’s your career at that point. You know I was getting my peach day I was in school but that was my job. You know I got paid for it and so I just you know just be patient with where you’re going and how you’re getting there as long as you’re moving towards that light I guess.
Krista [00:25:06] that wraps up part two in the life in the lab series. Huge thanks to Dr. Thu win for sharing her wisdom throughout this experience. A Day in the Life series. If you haven’t already, be sure to listen to part 1 in this series to experience a day in the life of a post doc neuroscientist. So they say you can’t get a job without experience but need experience to get the job. But luckily we have quite the experience. You can join our team and experience a day in the life of the jobs you want by applying to be a student editor regardless of your major or amount of experience. This is the perfect stepping stone into any internship or career. Find more info and sign up at XADITL.com/students.
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