When successful scientists talk about their career journeys, it often seems like the inevitable conclusion of some early dream. However, finding one’s path can be a challenging endeavor. As a result, it is important to keep an eye out for people and opportunities that might influence the horizons of how we conceive our futures and to allow ourselves to venture into new directions.
Growing up, I wanted to sell elote (roasted corn often topped with mayo and hot sauce); it seemed like a good way to spread the same joy that I got out of eating it. The people selling elote were part of my community and thus among the possibilities of a future I could conceive for myself. This was not true of physicians or scientists. In fact, in high school, I didn’t even know the difference between the two.
It wasn’t until after my freshman year of college at Yale University that I tried biological research for the first time, before even taking a college biology class. Rather than out of a genuine interest in research, this happened mostly because I knew several other students who were doing summer research internship programs, and these programs provided stipends that would allow me to support myself over the summer. I applied for the UT Health Science Center Summer Research Program in Houston, Texas, and worked in the lab of Dr. Iraida Sharina. I recall being asked by Dr. Sharina early in the program whether I was planning to do an MD or a PhD. I didn’t know what either degree was for. I do not remember what my answer was, but I do remember having a moment of realization of how little I knew about what I was embarking upon.
Despite a feeling of uncertainty, I found myself in a supportive and enjoyable atmosphere in the lab. That summer, I learned how much I enjoyed the meticulous nature of scientific experiments. I found that coming up with careful controls and elegant assays to learn truths behind very specific processes was incredibly rewarding for me. However, because of my sparse scientific background, I initially had no idea how to interpret most of my results. When I returned to college the following semester, I decided to take biology classes.
As a first-generation college student, college biology (and really all of college) felt like an academic struggle. I did not know what to expect and I constantly felt like I was trying to learn what everyone around me already knew. My high school had not prepared me for college level courses. Ultimately, my grades were not terrific, especially in science courses where so much material is based on previous knowledge, and is often brought up in class as “a brief review of something you learned in high school”. Thanks to my interest in science stemming from my summer research experience, as well as a healthy curving of grades (read: grade inflation), I was able to pull solid Bs. Although I was happy to be passing all of my science courses, I was still discouraged. Was I cut out for science? Would I ever catch up to those around me? Ultimately, because I enjoyed being in the lab so much, I decided I didn’t really care what the answers to these questions were. Whether as a research technician or the head of a lab, I figured I could be involved in research one way or another if I just kept going.
Since it was hard enough to get through my classes, I initially put off doing research during the school year. Then, as a junior, I decided to return to what had inspired me to learn more about biology in the first place. While in my previous summer program, there had been a system that helped match us to labs. In college this process was much more amorphous. I had to email professor after professor, just hoping for a response. I had nothing to go on but brief descriptions of their research, but eventually felt desperate enough that it did not even matter what kind of research they were doing. Most professors didn’t respond. Sometimes I got a response asking me for my CV. The worst was receiving “advice” after sending my CV suggesting I should find something I was better at.
After contacting over twenty different labs, I eventually found a lab that would take me, a home for my scientific curiosity and, most importantly, a mentor who would invest time and effort into my training as a scientist. In Martín García-Castro’s lab, I studied the development of a fascinating part of the developing embryo called the neural crest. As in my experience, it can be hard to find a good mentor, but it is worth the arduous search. If you are pursuing scientific research, at some point you will hear that you should choose a lab based on the potential mentor and not the specific research they are doing. I fully endorse this message, and encourage everyone to always keep an eye out for good mentors. I hope to be that kind of mentor some day.
"After contacting over twenty different labs, I eventually found a lab that would take me, a home for my scientific curiosity and, most importantly, a mentor who would invest time and effort into my training as a scientist."
Once in the lab, I had somewhat made up my mind to try the PhD route and continue with research. But in the midst of this, I had also searched for more ways to get involved with the local community. One particular thing I missed about home was speaking Spanish, my native language, on a regular basis. I volunteered as an interpreter at a free clinic run by medical staff and students. I spent most weekends not only interpreting language, but also attempting to do so in a culturally conscientious manner, attempting to convey meaning often encoded into the nuances of word choice inherent to a patient's background.
This was an incredibly fulfilling experience and showed me how rewarding it was to be in healthcare. My experience made me realize the importance of diverse healthcare providers in delivering culturally competent care, especially because I was helping patients in a community like the one that I came from. Although I was already on the path towards research and applying for graduate school, at the same time, I could not ignore this potential part of my future career that I also really valued. Thankfully, after speaking to some of the medical students that worked at the free clinic, I learned about combined medical (MD) and research (PhD) programs that could prepare me for a career encompassing both spheres that I was interested in.
When I decided to apply to MD/PhD programs, I knew that it would not be easy; I would have to convince programs that I could handle the academic rigor despite my lackluster GPA and even lower science GPA. Given the difficult road ahead, I had to cast a wide net to give myself the best chance of getting accepted into a program. I applied to over 20 schools for both MD/PhD and DO/PhD programs. MD and DO medical schools have different philosophical guiding principles at their core, but both similarly train excellent physicians in a way that can be complementary to biomedical research. I also played to my strengths and focused my application on my dedication to research in order to make up for the shortcomings of my application. To further enhance my research experience, I spent an extra year as a research technician in the lab that I had been studying in during college.
I found that the programs that invited me for interviews were receptive to hearing about my journey, and were at least somewhat understanding of my grades and late start in being involved in medicine. It did at times feel like I was invited to interview in spite of my grades, but I was given the chance to explain why I had received these marks in person. Program directors ultimately expressed an interest in my ability to bring a different perspective to the table as a physician scientist in training and the vast majority reassured me that the process of selecting students was about more than grades and standardized test scores. Eventually, I received some offers of acceptance (several of which came after being initially waitlisted) and have now been in an MD/PhD program for the past six years.
Looking back, I am grateful for allowing myself to explore new opportunities and discover new interests. Giving myself the flexibility to re-envision my future has led me down a path where I find myself constantly challenged, but also excited about a professional future that allows me to fulfill my multiple passions.
Jonathan is currently a sixth year MD-PhD student in the Department of Genetics at the Yale School of Medicine. He studies the genetics and molecular mechanisms underlying birth defects. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from Yale University. After graduating, he continued his undergraduate work as a research technician in the Lab of Martín García-Castro at Yale.
Jonathan is also a 2018 recipient of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. Jonathan is passionate about mentoring future healthcare and research-oriented students from underrepresented backgrounds, including first generation and limited resource college students.