In scientific research, some Ph.D students have metaphors for the way that labs are run. At Rockefeller University, the two main types are called “garden labs” and “factory labs”. Ed Aguilar, sporting a green and black sweater with a red reindeer in the center, works in a garden lab, filled with rabbit holes and twisted roots and sprouting trees.
“Your boss effectively plants you in a garden and says alright, here are some nutrients,” said Aguilar, a 25-year-old Ph.D student in Charlie M. Rice’s virology lab. “Then in this condition, you wander, sputter about, you go in the wrong direction sometimes, but eventually you find your roots, you strengthen, you get more confident and strong, and over time you have a nice little healthy tree.”
Rice’s lab is famous for its discoveries on how the Hepatitis C virus infects liver cells and causes disease. But the 40-plus researchers study lots of viruses. The overarching aim is to help better understand infectious diseases and how they develop. Aguilar, for one, studies the Sindbis Virus, common in African river regions and parts of Asia. The virus triggers fever, rashes and arthritis. Aguilar isn’t focusing so much on the symptoms, but is trying to understand on a molecular level, how this microscopic microbe sneaks into cells and infects them.
In this garden lab, Aguilar pioneers his own research and experiments, only receiving help from time to time when he finds himself in one of those endless rabbit holes. He enjoys the freedom he has to read up on what he’s doing, and make sure he’s going in the right direction. But the journey hasn’t always been so pleasant. Before he got to Rice’s lab, he spent nine months working with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in a downtown Manhattan lab. The goal was to develop a monkey model of the virus. This lab was the opposite of a garden lab; it was a factory lab.
“At the time that I joined the lab, I was probably the most excited person in my class to join a lab,” Aguilar said. “And then it just took all of my joy and excitement and turned it to ash.”
A factory lab works how it sounds. It’s a 24/7 crunch, with large amounts of work getting pumped out in a short amount of time. The lab leaders know exactly what they want everyone to be working on, and there is always a head looking over someone’s shoulder.
Aguilar began to deteriorate under the pressure. He averaged over 70 hours of lab time a week, and developed a constant shaking. He chewed his nails to bits, and lost speech fluency.
“It pretty much took me a couple of minutes to say good morning,” he said.
Eventually, he became terrified of touching anything in the lab altogether. This was not the research life he once dreamed of. In fact, he felt like this was not a life at all.
Aguilar grew up in San Diego, California. His interest in medicine evolved after binge-watching the TV series “House”, a medical drama about a genius, yet erratic doctor leading a team of diagnosticians. The idea of figuring out the unknown enchanted Aguilar. When he went to college at University of California-Santa Barbara, he decided to major in Biochemistry.
While at college, he experimented with three different career paths. Although he loved animals, working at an animal shelter made him realize being a veterinarian was not the path for him. Despite winning an award for his bedside manner, he didn’t find volunteering at a hospital interesting. After working in a research lab, he decided that was where he belonged.
“I think you get more of a clear defining and understanding of the nuances of complicated systems, and I like exploring these unknown things and sort of by trial and error, with pointed hypotheses, eventually discovering something new,” he said.
Aguilar graduated college in three years, and worked at a biotech company for two years before grad school. When he entered Rockefeller University, he tested out two different research labs before deciding on HIV. Nine months later, crushed by the monotony of the high-pressure environment, he was seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist, and was prescribed both antidepressants and antipsychotics for crippling anxiety.
Every Tuesday at 10:30 AM, Aguilar would meet with his boss to discuss his data and new ideas for the next week. At first, Aguilar was excited about the challenging and potentially rewarding work ahead. Yet, small bumps in the road plummeted his spirits. He would add something to the wrong test-tube, or put his cells at too high of a speed and kill them off. Then he’d have to start from scratch. This irritated his boss, prompting increased feelings of inadequacy. Negative thoughts permeated his mind.
“I give up. I can’t do anything. I’m a failure. I’m the worst. I never deserved to get accepted to this school. I’m a piece of shit. I am the worst trash the west coast has to offer the east coast,” he said, recounting what was going through his head at the time. “And I was nothing.”
Aguilar began to feel alone and suicidal. During visits with a therapist, it became clear to him that anxiety may have always been a part of his life, but he had never addressed it. Childhood memories of pulling out hair and twitches and vocal ticks resurfaced, slamming him in the face with the truth about his mental health. He started have sobering realizations about himself, like the fact that he had never really had a strong network of friends.
Both his life and research felt totally out of his control.
“One thing you want in your Ph.D is to feel like you’re driving the project,” he said. “I felt like I was just being a lab monkey and not thinking about anything.”
Even though Aguilar was in a downward emotional spiral, he was terrified of talking to the dean about switching labs. But a pep talk from a close friend clarified the situation.
“My friend said, ‘You sound like you’re in an abusive relationship.’ And I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’”
Aguilar finally called it quits, and told the dean he needed to switch labs, a route rarely traveled by research students. Failure was a distant concern, since he could hardly picture living through each future week. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to work again. He blindly trudged on.
He started from square one, looking for a new lab to join, while simultaneously rebuilding his mental health. The lab he wanted was full, so he ended up in Charlie M. Rice’s lab, the last one available. Slowly, he began to feel his meds kick in. He grew fond of the garden lab, and finally felt like he had room to breathe.
“I remember the first day I felt hope again, and I was like ‘oh my god, I forgot this feeling existed,’” he said.
Aguilar has another six or seven years of research ahead of him, and even though at times it seems daunting, he feels good about it. He still sees a therapist and takes his antidepressants and antipsychotics; if he doesn’t, he regresses. But at the moment, he is moving forward in his life and his research.
Right now, he is looking for the right cell line to use in his experiments with the Sindbis Virus, which will help determine what makes the virus infectious. A cell line is an immortal cell growth that originates from cancer cells, and different lines have varying reactions when interacting with their environment. Aguilar needs a cell line that doesn’t have too weak of a defense system, so that he can note how it reacts with Sindbis specifically. When he finds the right cell line, he will infect it with Sindbis, to help determine what specific protein or property is important to how the infection takes place.
Every four months, Aguilar presents his findings to his boss. A few days ago, he was given the thumbs up to keep going with his cell line search. Aguilar still spends a lot of time in the lab, but takes his free time seriously. He schedules time for walks in Central Park, takes the subway down to Brooklyn to explore, hits the gym a few times a week and gets drunk with his friends. In terms of dating, he says the New York social scene is more of a problem than the research life.
“It’s all sorts of messed up in New York City,” Aguilar joked. He’s used to the kind demeanor of the West Coast, and is constantly shocked by how people act in the city. “They redefine the laws of humanity.”
Dating may still seem like a challenge to Aguilar, but socializing is not. While hanging out with more than two people used to send him into panic attacks and crying fits, he now has multiple groups of people that he likes to spend time with. He attributes this change to being open with people about his mental illness, which resulted in others opening up to him about their own struggles.
Although he said his experience in the HIV lab was probably one of the worst, it bothered him when he found out there were other depressed students hiding their struggle.
“At this point I’m very open about these things, but I realize that a lot of people aren’t,” he said. “And I think its something that people should be more honest about and shouldn’t be ashamed of.”
If someone had asked him in college where he wanted to be in five years, Aguilar would have said the HIV lab. “And look how that turned out,” he said. Now, all he wants for his future is happiness, and no regrets. Aguilar will probably be doing research for the rest of his life, because he loves it. But he remains weary of his psychological limits.
“In the media you typically represent the Albert Einsteins and the Nikola Teslas, the Thomas Edisons. I think what’s sort of under appreciated is just how nervous everyone is in science. Everyone is always nervous. You never know when you’re gonna get scooped. You never know when something’s gonna come out and its gonna say all of your work is invalid. There are so many things that are hard to predict. But its kind of like this eclectic heat of trying to get something in a timely manner that’s kind of inspiring sometimes,” Aguilar said. “And sometimes the simplest experiments end up having the biggest impacts.”