The fall quarter of my junior year, I found myself in a course on molecular phylogenetics.
As a survey class, the lectures started simple, but soon progressed to more advanced topics,including the use of Markov chains in Bayesian inference. I’ll admit, it didn’t immediately click.For me, the breakthrough moment came when the professor displayed an image of aconceptualized Markov chain: more or less a string of dots that snaked its way up a crudelyrendered 3D hill. This image was meant to show how a Markov chain can probe parameter-spaceto find the phylogeny with the greatest posterior probability.
In layman’s terms—which is how Igrasped it at the time—as that chain of dots ambled up the hill it uncovered the parameters thatbegot the optimal phylogeny. Thinking back to the walk of that little string of dots, in fits andspurts in search of an optimum, I feel it’s a good analogy for my scientific career thus far.I’ve spent the four years of my undergraduate career casting a wide net, whether it be inthe courses I’ve chosen or in the research projects I’ve taken on, in hopes of discovering whatdiscipline is optimal for me. With each new class, shift in the lab, or day in the field, I’ve tried tolearn from each experience and keep moving up-hill. I entered college as an economics major; Iexited with degrees in biology and environmental science. Once I settled on a major in science,my research experience progressed along the same pattern.
I moved from the field, to the lab, tothe computer and back again, always trying to sort out how I wanted to work. My undergraduateyears, coupled with my time at Argonne, eventually led me to the conclusion that a field at theintersection of biology and environmental science—microbial ecology—is where my passion lies.I recognize that I still have much to learn, though, and I have not yet reached the top of thehill, so to speak.
But that in itself informs my choice to pursue graduate education. I want to learnwhat I do not know exists, just as much as I’d like to expand on what I’ve already been exposedto. At an internship in Chicago, I grew my skills as writer, during a stint in Colorado, I steeled myfieldwork know-how, and during my with time with Argonne, I’ve become comfortable in the laband in silico. I’m hoping to employ the tools and techniques I’ve gathered to succeed in graduateschool, but I also want to grow that skillset as well. Watching faculty who excel at their work, I’vecome to believe that a comprehensive and interdisciplinary set of skills is what allows researchersto succeed in the modern environment. Moreover, though you rarely see a tenured professorrunning a gel, I believe that being able to visualize and understand each part of a larger workflowcomes from firsthand experience, and that builds an important foundation for future research.
While I’m not yet committed to a single profession, after graduate school I hope to leveragewhat I’ll learn to solve practical, environmental issues, be it through academia or industry. For me,science is most interesting when it is applied, rather than pure, and that’s why I’m interested inmicrobial ecology from an environmental engineering perspective. Fortunately, I think the field ofmicrobial ecology is itself primed for development. It’s a young science, so there’s a disconnectbetween research and application, yet it’s old enough that there already exists a suite of tools formicrobial analysis and manipulation.
Something I aspire to do professionally, as well as during my graduate career, is to furtherparse out how microbes inhabit and affect our modern, built-environment, and how we cancooperate with them to save energy, improve health, and develop new technology. About a yearago, I set my Markov chain down a fortunate path that landed me in a position where I could startto explore that aspiration. With the support and council of Dr. Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecologistat my university, I’ve been investigating bacterial and fungal diversity in a built-environment full of soil-analogs: a ceramics studio. As a number of adages exist in the ceramics world—moldy clayis good, aged clay is more plastic, glazes flocculate over time—that imply microbial meddling, Iwanted to investigate whether or not there were microscopic forces at work. Parsing out thatquestion has involved 16S and ITS sequencing, use of a wide variety of bioinformatics software,and hopefully culture work in the future.
While the end goal of that project is to utilize microbialbiogeochemistry to shape practices in the ceramics field, in the intermediary it’s acted as anopportunity for me to validate that I’m actually interested in the work that I say I am.At Yale, I’m hoping to continue to pursue and answer questions like these. By workingwith faculty like Dr.
Jordan Peccia, I hope to grow myself as an engineer with a biologist’s toolkit.Moreover, as the School of Engineering and Applied Science is made up of a diverse andinterdisciplinary group of researchers, I hope to mirror that in my own work and education, andinteract with a range of faculty, both within SEAS and beyond, like Dr. Ruth Blake and Dr.Alvaro Sanchez.