Finding my passion

I have had some interesting thoughts (revelations, you might say) in the past 36 hours or so, and many of them do have to do with my future plans and discovering what I really want to do in the next phase of my life. Everyone has a story of why they are passionate about certain things, and this is mine.

I suppose I need to go back a few years to explore the pathways of thought that have led to the present. We could go way back to when I was little and wanted to be a scientist, but things really start to get interesting about a year before I went to college, when my passion for science really began to re-emerge. That was when I first heard about a name that has become synonymous with innovation: Elon Musk. He had not quite reached international superstar status back in 2011, and so when I first read about him I felt I had found a personal role model, a vision for a future not shared by my peers. Now of course, every eager young engineering student dreams of being the next “real-life Tony Stark.” Musk’s company Tesla Motors has been particularly magnetic to media attention, but it was Spacex that really captured my imagination.

I can think of no greater accomplishment in human history than the lunar landing. The idea of setting foot on another world gives me chills, and Spacex’s dramatic foray into the privatization of space exploration thrilled me. However, it was not the design of rockets that fueled my imagination, but the delicate balance of biological factors necessary to allow for human life to spread from Earth. The beauty of a closed ecological system, where nothing is wasted, seemed to be key in unlocking space to human exploration.

My curiosity led me to reading about the Biosphere II, a sealed-off environment built in Arizona, where several people lived for two years as an experiment of the feasibility of such environments. While the actual rigor of the experiment was questionable and the results mixed, the experiment fascinated me. In particular, I was interested in the ensuing career of Jane Poynter, one of the participants in the study. Ms. Poynter has also joined the entrepreneurial space race, and has a company (Paragon Space Development Corporation) that specializes in the design of space habitat components. For a period of time I thought that no career could be better than working at such a company, solving problems that would allow humans to live in extreme environments.

At around the beginning of my sophomore year, I began thinking about how designing a closed ecosystem would require careful regulation of the metabolism of all living things in it. And so, my next area of interest became metabolic regulation. How does an organism regulate metabolism? How can things go wrong? I was aware of the epidemic of metabolic diseases facing our world, and was interested in elucidating metabolic processes that could help solve that problem as well as the one of closed ecosystems. Doing this would require an understanding of molecular mechanisms involved in metabolism: the way that proteins, DNA, and other biomolecules dance with each other in our cells.

During this development of ideas, I was also becoming more and more curious about the role of gut bacteria in human health. My mind was absolutely blown by the fact that bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells by 1 or 2 orders of magnitude. And yet, so little is known about how these bacteria, particularly in the gut, impact health. There are far-reaching consequences of changes in gut bacteria, from obesity to autoimmune disorders to mental health problems, and nobody understands why.

Everything finally clicked when I heard of “systems biology.” Of course! All three of my varied interests over my first two years of college involved studying complex biological systems, all of which had many interacting parts. I wanted to understand networks of living things, whether they be different species in a closed environment, biomolecules turning food into energy, or strains of bacteria in the gut. The problem was that I didn’t know how to study any of it. Systems biology is a field in its infancy. Researchers can identify bacterial species, observe the structure of a crystallized protein, or take biometric data about organisms in an ecosystem. However, there is a definite lack (or so it seemed to me) of methods for studying how these individual elements interact. For instance, pharmaceutical companies often have no idea exactly how a drug interacts with the many components of a biological system, though they know it will bind to an isolated enzyme. A better model would be immensely useful for determining side effects. I thought this was an area ripe for innovation, and perhaps even an entrepreneurial opportunity might emerge. I finally had a scientific passion; something to guide my career.

However, during these two years, I never thought to consider what might be the most amazing biological system of all, consisting of 100 billion units and trillions of connections. A system that allows the Universe to observe and understand itself. I am talking, of course, about the brain. I don’t know why it took me three years to join the Neuroscience Appreciation Club, but I am glad I have arrived. I have already written a post about my work doing theoretical and computation neuroscience this summer, so I need not repeat myself too much, but I will say that my work with modelling a neural network has been a rewarding and hugely interesting experience. I have found tools and methods useful for understanding a biological system, and while I have not completely lost interest in the three subjects I mentioned earlier, I really think I would be happy to devote myself to studying neural networks in graduate school.

This brings me to the events of the past couple of days. The other night, I was talking about my plans for the future with a friend. As I talked, I realized just how many opportunities could open up to me if I continue along the path of neuroscience. There is enormous demand for machine learning algorithms and artificial neural networks used for data-mining. We live in an era of “Big Data,” but don’t know what to do with it all. It hit me that discoveries about the way human brain works go hand in hand with advances in making smarter machines and programs that can process mountains of data, in the nebulously defined field of data science. I was aware of all this beforehand, but the full significance had never dawned on me, and I never identified myself as someone who would ever be a “data scientist.”

Now, I have come to realize that this could be a career path that fits me well: hunting for patterns, designing models of self-organizing systems, making order out of noise. I have finally found a field of interest where exciting opportunities abound, both in and out of academia, and have opened up far too many browser tabs tonight researching data scientist jobs. I still have very much to learn, but I feel a passion that matches how I felt three years ago, dreaming of space exploration.