Guest Post: PhD life – chasing the highs

The purpose of this blog is to share personal accounts of MD/PhD training, and I’m excited to expand the perspectives presented here with the first ever guest post! This post is by Alex Yang, who I first connected with via Twitter a few years back (and is a fellow liver lover!)

PhD life – chasing the highs

Alex Yang

Disheveled. Exasperated. Desperate. I had failed to co-immunoprecipitate my two proteins of interest again. I had lost track how many times I’ve tried in the first two years of my PhD. For those of you that aren’t in basic science research, the amount of failure is immense. I would estimate 90% of all experiments are failures. A co-immunoprecipitation involves pulling down with an antibody for one protein and blotting for another protein to suggest a protein-protein interaction. Theoretically if the antibodies are working, the technique shouldn’t be hard. But I couldn’t get it work. And I didn’t think I could ever get it work. I started questioning why I even attempted a PhD and didn’t just be a “normal” doctor like all my other classmates. Before I go on, let’s go back to see how I decided to be a #doubledoc in the first place.

Everything that I’ve accomplished and will accomplish, I owe to my first-generation immigrant parents. My dad is a PhD, professor in Immunology and Microbiology. Smartest person I know to this day. My mom is a MD, family doctor with a very large successful clinic. Hardest working person I know to this day. This naturally made me interested in pursuing a MD/PhD as I am a combination of my parents both biologically and degree-wise. Science was always my favorite subject in school. I remember starting to learn basic lab techniques in middle school and continued in high school. When I found a MD/PhD mentor as an undergraduate that beautifully combined both degrees and encouraged me to do the same, the rest was history. I applied MD/PhD right out of college knowing the long road ahead. First two years of medical school flew by, and now I was in a basic science lab studying genetic mechanisms of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Back to the co-immunoprecipitation. Although medical school was challenging it did not prepare me for the failure of graduate school. In medical school, I had passed all my exams by a large margin. Failing was never an option, but it’s almost a daily occurrence in graduate school. As much as I failed the co-immunoprecipitation, I knew I couldn’t give up. Although I had evidence in over-expression models in cell lines, we needed evidence with endogenous proteins in-vivo specifically in a mice model. I was discouraged, but the post-doc that I worked with suggested we need to purify the lipid droplets from the liver in order to concentrate the proteins. That would give us the best chance to successfully immunoprecipitate both proteins. It was an extra step (actually more like 20), but it was a new direction to try.

I knew the chances of success was slim, but that’s what we do as graduate students. We have to learn from our failures. Optimize. Repeat. And finally, we persevere. I grudgingly purified the lipid droplets and added the antibody. The next day I blotted. When I exposed the gel, a single beautiful band appeared showing my band indicating my protein of interest. Who knew one band (no not the Jonas Brothers type of band) could give so much joy? I was ecstatic and relieved. When my principle investigator saw the results, he could only smile. Knowing I just accomplished something that no one in the world has ever done thrilled me. For those undergraduates reading this and still trying to decide if graduate school is right for them, I implore you to re-evaluate your experience in lab. Are the highs of the 10% of success high enough to carry you through the 90% of failures? If not, maybe consider just a MD as a PhD is all about persevering through failure. As for me, I was on cloud nine. The pains of the failures were wiped away by the joy of success. I didn’t choose the PhD life. It had chosen me.

IMG_1397About Alex: I’m a 4th year MD/PhD student at Wayne State University studying genetic mechanisms of fatty liver disease. In my spare time I like to cook, exercise, play video games, and write. Check me out on twitter @MDPhDinProgress.