Two Unique Experiences, One Interview

This summer, I have been working closely with first year graduate students Richard Wong and Katrina DeWitt. I was able to interview them together to discuss their experiences in the science field so far. A shortened version of the interview is posted below.

Where did you complete your undergrad studies and what were your majors/minors?

Katrina: “I went to Rutgers University Camden for my undergraduate and master’s where I earned a B.S. and M.S. in Biology. I also minored in Chemistry.”

Richard: “I studied at University of Massachusetts Boston where I earned a B.S. in Biology and a certificate in Environmental Biology.”

In regard to your goals, how have they changed throughout the years and what do you wish to accomplish?

Katrina: “When I started my undergrad, I thought I was going to enter the medical field. Rutgers had this very specific program centered around cardiovascular technology but it got shut down during my first semester. I actually almost dropped out of college, but eventually the biology department reached out and offered some students shadowing opportunities. I ended up applying to shadow one of the labs and that ended up being the lab I stayed in for both my undergrad and my master’s. Once I started shadowing in the lab, I realized how much I enjoyed it and I just threw myself into the science field. I started applying for grants and participating in internship programs and I quickly became sure that I wanted to earn a PhD. I also discovered that I really love teaching, so I will likely pursue a position centered around teaching once I’ve earned my PhD.”

Richard: “Since I was a kid, I always loved the outdoors so I started my undergrad knowing that I wanted to study ecology. I actually thought I wanted to study marine biology at first, so I pursued aquarium work for a while. I started interning at the New England Aquarium during the summer after my first year, but that evolved into a volunteer position once the internship was over. I kept being involved with the aquarium but I also started interning as a field tech for a research lab at my school. I was working in salt marshes and I realized how much I love field work and how much I love discussing big questions, even if there aren’t any definite answers. I kept working with this lab and eventually decided that I wanted to earn a PhD. I also realized that I love talking about plants even more than I love talking about marine science, so I began to shift my focus towards plants, which is what I’m studying now. I hope to one day establish a lab and mentor students who show a true passion and curiosity towards science.”

What has been your teaching experience so far?

Katrina: “I taught during my master’s program, so I’ve done about 3 years of teaching now. I taught two classes a semester, both of which where always labs. I also had to take over a lecture class for about half a semester, so I’ve done a lot of teaching compared to a lot of other first year grad students and I even helped develop a new course at Rutgers. I honestly thought I was gonna hate teaching. I was pretty scared my first time teaching, but after the first class I absolutely loved it. This actually shaped my career path, because I’m now planning to get a teaching based job in academia.” **Follow-up question: What type of teaching do you prefer?** “I like teaching labs because it’s hands-on and it really helps students better understand what they learn in lecture. I like lecturing but I just think lab is way more fun.”

Richard: “I tutored a little during my undergrad, mostly gen bio, genetics, and ecology, but I’ve never officially taught anything yet. I’ve unofficially mentored some undergrads when I was working as a lab tech, but this is my first time having an official mentee. I really like mentorships and I look forward to having a lab later in my career where I can interact with my students.”

What has been your grad school experience in areas that aren’t related to academics? What is your life like when you aren’t woking?

Katrina: “Well, this past year was really weird, for obvious reasons, and Richard is actually the only grad student here I really know right now. But even putting the Covid situation aside, it can still be pretty hard because a lot of your free time is still dedicated to your work. That being said, we’re here because we genuinely like what we do. We often struggle with a work-life balance, but we’re often still satisfied with this. Of course, there are still times where you can plan ahead and make the effort to get together with other people or even take little trips, but a lot of the time you really are just trying to focus on your work while also finding time for yourself.”

Richard: “I make an effort to set time aside for a bunch of my hobbies. I love rock climbing, fishing, diving, hiking, and also just hanging out with friends. I like talking to other students after all our seminars, but I still feel like this past year we’ve missed a bunch of opportunities to make a lot of the connections we usually would have made.”

What do you love about working in science?

Katrina: “It is very rewarding. You feel a fantastic sense of accomplishment when your research finally works. This really big reward balances out a lot of the lows you experience while conducting research. I also love learning in general, and you’re always learning something knew in the lab.”

Richard: “I like asking questions and trying to figure them out. I just love the search for knowledge, even if you don’t find any answers. It’s like a fun puzzle.”

What would you change about the science field? 

Katrina: “I hate mansplaining in academia. I also wish people were slightly more helpful. A lot of professors feel like they don’t have time to really help, so you often find yourself on your own, which can be very frustrating.”

Richard: “I hate how big people’s egos can be sometimes. I think some people get caught up in trying to make a name for themselves and they can often lose sight of what’s important when it comes to research and just searching for knowledge. They can be very closed minded and reluctant to listen to the questions and ideas of others. The field is also very male dominated and very white dominated.”

What are your most memorable lab moments/disasters?

Katrina: “I was on a trip to the Florida Keys for a marine field ecology class to study sharks, and my professor got bit by a nurse shark. He wasn’t seriously hurt and he kept making jokes about it, but it was definitely memorable.”

Richard: “When I was working in the salt marsh ecology lab, we were out at like 4 am to collect fish during a night time high tide. We finished taking our samples and, the second we were done, we saw lighting strike right above our metal boat, which was loaded with gasoline. We all just dropped everything and started running towards the forest, which was about a mile and a half away. No one got hurt, but we had to wait in the forest for like an hour and a half until it cleared up. That is probably one of my most memorable lab moments.”

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