This is a guest post by Winston Anthony for Student Stories.
I love my job.
I get to work everyday with leaders in my field, trying to understand how animals age and gaining real life experience towards my next step: Graduate School.
When I look back, I can’t help but laugh at the mysteries of the universe. I share my story in the hopes that it will be helpful to other struggling students or recent graduates, who I feel a kinship with.
After I finished high school, my education was paused for a few hot months while I waited to start at UMASS Amherst. The summer stretched out before me like an endless road of idyllic indolence.
The only hitch stopping my fun in the sun: I had no money, and job opportunities were limited in the small Massachusetts suburb I grew up in. I lucked out when an organic non-profit vegetable farm I volunteered at during high school needed an “intern” (i.e. someone they could pay $6 an hour.)
It was an exhausting job, and I have never physically worked harder in my entire life. However, the mental stimulation far outlasted the sore muscles.
Every day I was confronted with what at face value seemed simple: dig a hole for a root cellar, clear trails through a blackberry bramble, or weed a field. It quickly became apparent though that without working knowledge of farming technique, I was doubling the amount of time needed to complete a task.
In farming, when you make mistakes, it results in immediate and often painful consequences! Not wearing gloves while clearing a field of stumps resulted in a particularly bad case of poison ivy (long after the plants are gone, the oil continues to survive in the soil).
It was on that dry and dusty field in Massachusetts I discovered the price of learning and the value of experience.
This humble labor helped me land my first scientific job: a Field Research Assistantship during the summer of 2010 helping a graduate student in the Department of Entomology.
We spent long days monitoring insect-plant interactions in a small strip of flowers we planted by hand. While the previous summer was physically demanding, this one was hectic: I was working part time at a hardware store and the other half of the week commuting 2 hours to work in the field counting insect visits to research flowers. The field position was unpaid, and there were many times when I felt the job was absolutely worthless, that I was putting needless time and gas money into watching flowers grow. Literally.
With a little reflection I now see it for what it truly was, an important stepping-stone towards future work, and a primary reason for where I am now.
My life was about to take a very dramatic turn. On a whim (and desire to get out of a state I had spent the last 23 years of my life in), I decided to take advantage of the Student Exchange Program offered through many state universities. I enrolled for a semester at the University of Hawaii on the Big Island.
Perhaps the smartest move I made in undergrad, I cannot speak well enough about the experience. I was officially enrolled as a new student at the University, and I lunged at the chance to reinvent myself as a student and a person in a new place.
I excelled in studying Marine Biology, traveled the island, fell in love, and experienced a culture unlike any other in the United States. I grew up a boy living in a very sheltered community, and the most vivid lesson I learned during my time in Hawaii was not taught in class, but in day-to-day life. Learning to live with people who on the surface seem so different from you in the way they look, dress, or talk is one of the most rewarding experiences; the doors it opens into others’ lives and the ability to feel comfortable in strange circumstances are just a couple skills I picked up there.
Hawaii taught me perspective: the most stressful job interview is a piece of cake after sitting on a beach at night amidst the crashing of waves on the reef, listening to Native Hawaiians speak of the annexation of Hawaii. How it crushed their hopes of being a sovereign nation-state and altered the course of their lives forever.
Now that is a tough conversation.
During the last few months of the exchange I decided to apply to some national internships in the sciences, and on the strength of my new transcript and my personal statement detailing my experiences on the island I landed my first paid internship: I was to be a National Science Foundation Fellow in their Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the University of Texas’ Marine Science Facility in Port Aransas.
Those were truly halcyon days: given free rein to conduct my own research project, fishing off the rocks of the jetty every night, and exploring a new part of America I had never been to before. Oh and did I mention I was making $15 an hour?
My initial interest in scientific research was replaced with a deeper passion for the investigation of natural phenomena.
Coming back to UMASS I felt like I had really accomplished something in the short year I was away, and I was determined to continue my trend towards greatness (as I viewed it at least). I met with the professor who I worked for in the past, and was able to convince her I would be an asset to a research project she was starting due to my accomplishments during my internship. This project occupied the rest of my time during undergrad, and even spun off into my own side project studying the drug dependent effects of parasite infection on bumblebees for which I completed a manuscript (another great learning experience for work in Academia).
My story is my own, it is unique to me, and I use it to my advantage whenever I have the chance, such as when (through a great act of chance and luck) I found myself chatting with a Harvard Professor. I was able to captivate him with my story, interest him with my experience in science, and gain a tour of his laboratory. One thing led to another, and I was hired on as an intern.
6 Months later, due to my direct supervisor leaving, and in the face of a very compelling job offer, I was counter offered with a pay raise to stay on as a Research Fellow.
Life works in mysterious ways.
Working on a farm for $6 an hour may not seem like a way to become a research assistant at Harvard Medical School, but I am living proof that the most random or inconsequential actions can propel you towards a future doing exciting work.
It is more a matter of how well you can leverage your history and skills to work for you which determines how well you achieve your dreams.
Gaining a foothold in a laboratory as a hardworking volunteer turned into a paid research assistantship. Starting fresh on a tropical island turned into an amazing summer research experience in Texas.
All of this I was able to distil into an exciting story that got my foot in the door to a great department, and resulted in the job I currently hold.
My story might seem extraordinary, but it really isn’t. Every single step followed logically from the one preceding it, and as disjointed and different as each of my experiences seem on the surface, they follow a linear path that, had any of the order been changed, would probably have resulted in a completely different outcome.
However, that is not a bad thing! I guarantee I would still be somewhere fantastic doing things I love.
Leave yourself open to the world, and the world will open itself to you.
Points to take away:
1. Take any opportunity when it comes, you don’t know what amazing things it will eventually lead to. I have never felt like I was a person who knows what I want to do in life, and I still don’t. I am merely a wanderer using interest and opportunity as my compass.
2. Don’t allow “common sense” to stop you from walking your own path. I was told that most Biology students forgo exchange or study abroad programs due to stringent requirements for major classes to be taken on the home campus, but my exchange made me a more attractive candidate for an internship due to my new transcript, higher GPA, and interesting personal statement.
3. Getting established takes time and work, often with very little reward at first. I have put in hundreds of hours of volunteering or working for very little money in order to gain the skills that then made me a valuable commodity later on.
4. Market yourself: You business school kids are often a bit ahead of the art and science majors in this regard. All of my blood, sweat, and tears would have been for naught if I didn’t also know how to turn my history into a compelling story and my skills into valuable assets. Having an excellent command of the English language is just as important as an understanding of higher level biology for a scientist.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Winston Anthony is a native of Massachusetts who currently works as a Research Fellow using survival analysis to study aging in the Systems Biology department of Harvard Medical School. He is 24 and looks forward to applying for graduate school in biology in the fall.