Week 5: Lesson of the Day: It's All About Finding Your Niche
I remember learning about niches in fifth grade. It was in relation to squirrels—fuzzy critters that managed to enjoy eating and planting acorns for a living. That was their niche, their place in the forest ecosystem. Other animals and plants filled the rest of the forest space in a beautiful, interweaving tapestry of needs presented and needs met. Nowadays, I think of Harvard Yard squirrels satisfying the curiosities of camera-wielding tourists—quite a different type of niche, yet an entertaining one for sure.
This summer, I learned laboratory techniques such as performing surgeries on the legs of mice, running them on mouse-sized treadmills, using FACS (Fluorescence-Activated Cell Sorting) to sort muscle stem cells, and doing EMSAs (Electrophoretic Mobility Shift Assays). I became a pro at Western Blotting and Western Blot exposing, and I spent dozens of hours at microscopes and in front of computers, counting cell colonies and determining the area of myofibers. I liked the in
vivo work I am doing and have found the independence of laboratory research to be truly exciting.
I learned a lot this summer, to say the least. Yet, if I had to take away a single lesson from all the time I spent in the Wagers Lab at Harvard, I would have to say that it isn’t a laboratory technique. Neither was the most important lesson better organizational skills or increased critical thinking (though I have gained those too!). I'd like to think of it as a life lesson. It is a lesson about finding your own niche.
In the Wagers Lab, each individual postdoctoral fellow and graduate student has his/her own distinct project. We share a space with the Rinn Lab, which works primarily on RNA, a totally different field. Down the hall, in Sherman Fairchild, are other stem cell labs, and on the other side, in Naito Laboratory, there are floors and floors of chemistry labs. Among this diversity, each individual delves deeply into their own particular, focused question.
My program, PRISE (Program for Research in Science and Engineering), had three days of talks this past week as a final hurrah before it finished. Every one of the PRISE fellows, all 140 of us, delivered 15-min PowerPoint presentations to our
peers. Each fellow opened up a small niche to be examined, questioned, and understood by others. For me, some niches were more interesting than others. Some niches were so complicated that I could only gaze in wonder from afar. Others were closer to my own. It was fascinating to see the passion and hard work that all the PRISE fellows put in to uncover more and more about the small space they had made for themselves in the scientific ecosystem.
Science research is all about niches. It is about finding your own niche passion and going after it, discovering more and
more. Perhaps some may find your niche utterly boring. Yet, if it is something that brings you joy, like the simple, ecstatic joy of a squirrel finding an acorn, then I would say, pursue it.
It might be a bit early for me to say that my current niche is one that I’ll stay in for a lifetime. However, it definitely is growing on me. I love the work that I do in lab and the problem I am tackling. I can't wait to see where this project will take me and what I will uncover.
Have you found your niche yet? If you have any questions about your journey along in research, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to talk to you and share with you my own path to the Wagers Lab and my project on aging and muscle regeneration.
About the Blogger
Stephanie Wang is a pre-med student at Harvard who just can't get enough of the hard sciences. This summer Stephanie is participating in PRISE, The Harvard College Program for Research in Science and Engineering, which is in its seventh summer. What is she most passionate about: learning new things, frisbee, poetry, every kind of apple, and people.