I always planned to be a professional musician, but ended up becoming a scientist almost at random! I didn’t really pay much attention to math or science classes until the very end of high school, but I was still able to catch up well enough to do an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and math. It turns out that once you discover something that is fascinating to you about math and science, it’s not that hard to learn, especially if you are learning and studying with a group of cool and motivated people, so you can all help each other to understand the material and what is amazing about it. Even though it was not a career path I was even aware of as an undergraduate, it turns out that being a scientist is a perfect job for me, because doing science has a lot of the same elements that I always liked about doing music: it requires creativity, hard work, problem solving, working in teams, being flexible, open-minded and adaptable, and presenting your work to people on a regular basis. Even if you have not usually thought of yourself as a “science/math person,” if you like puzzles and have a lot of curiosity about how the natural world works and how it got to be the way it is, I encourage you to take this course!
I grew up in rural Upstate New York. Most kids from my high school didn’t go to college, and no one had ever gone to Harvard. But my little high school in the Catskills nevertheless had the most remarkable and dedicated teachers. And Main Street had a wonderful bookstore and public library. My parents made sure I knew about the world outside the town, and my math teachers, who picked up on my liking math, were particularly encouraging. My teachers would drive me to local math competitions, and found ways to stimulate my interest in solving puzzles beyond the standard New York State curriculum. I learned about Harvard when I randomly got an application to Harvard Summer School in the mail. I applied, got in, and took Physics 1ab because I had already taken high school biology (which I liked) and chemistry (which I didn’t). I liked Harvard and so I came here for college. I thought I would eventually go to medical school like my brother and dad. I didn’t really know about other careers. I also didn’t think much about my own ability. My high school didn’t have Advanced Placement courses, and so I was a bit behind many of my friends who skipped ahead of introductory courses. But when I started working in a lab on the biophysics of bacterial behavior, I got hooked. I realized that one could make a living thinking about science full time. I stayed at Harvard to get my PhD and start my own lab. I am still thinking about organism behavior using physics and math, but now I think about worms and flies.
I don’t have that classic story where I can say I fell in love with science at a young age, discovered the beauty of research early and marched towards the goal of being a scientist – my path here is much more circuitous. I always loved school and the natural world, but most of my free time was spent at the barn with horses. I was lucky enough to have many fantastic teachers in school that were willing to feed and indulge my curiosity in many different areas. Heading off to college was overwhelming because I felt that I had to choose one topic for a major when I enjoyed so many. I had always loved math, but despite doing well in courses, in my mind I wasn’t very good at it. So, I told myself that in college I would take math classes until I couldn’t do the work anymore, at which point I would stop. Funnily enough, one math course turned into two and then three and eventually enough for a math major. Despite also majoring in biology, I did not begin to explore research until the end of my undergraduate time and though I enjoyed it, I felt like I never had any idea what I was doing and was always confused about my project. Unsure about graduate school, I spent three years working in a synthetic chemistry lab. There I realized that being confused is pretty much standard for research, but that the unknown is a lot more fun when it is your own project and you can work on it all day, every day. I moved on to graduate school, shifting gears back into biology, where I fell in love with bacteria and thinking about how they work. This course integrates research with many of the topics that I love, and I look forward to sharing them with you.
I grew up in sunny Houston, TX with a penchant for the humanities. Torn between my love of John Dewey and Oscar Wilde, I came to college agonizing about whether to study philosophy or English. But, as the child of two scientists, I decided that, if only to hold up my end of dinner table conversation, some education about the natural world was compulsory, and so I took introductory biology and psychology. Much to my bafflement, I liked it. Slowly but surely, in a way that in retrospect I can clearly see as governed by an incrementally-decreasing fear of the quantitative, my area of focus shifted: from freshman summer in a psychology lab, to my own research project in a neurobiology lab from sophomore to senior year, to graduating with a degree in MCB (with a minor in philosophy: a love not overwritten, even now!). I'm now finishing my PhD in Biophysics, having worked mostly in computational biology. If you'd told me at 18 that this is where I'd be now, I'd never have believed you! I love teaching LS50 for lots of reasons, but one of them is that it lets me try to pass on some lessons from this somewhat winding path. First: that math, computer science, and statistics, though they may at first seem impenetrable and scary, are powerful and amazingly satisfying tools with which to understand the world and should make sense if taught right. Second: that the practice of science is as radically and satisfyingly creative and personal as the practice of philosophy or of writing. I hope that you'll join us this year, that you'll see these themes in my lectures, and that you'll chat with me about these and any other questions that you have as you contemplate stepping into science.