Interview with a Scientist: Pam Osborn Popp

Up until now, this blog has mostly focused on my journey to becoming a physician. I know, however, that the world of health (and thus the interests of HOSA members) reaches far beyond patient care. To that end, I’m excited to begin branching out and interviewing extraordinary people who are impacting health and medicine through work in many different fields. I couldn’t think of a better person with which to begin this series.

Pam Osborn Popp is a graduate student in neural science at New York University. I recently interviewed her about her experiences and thoughts as she enters the world of professional academic research. A transcript of our conversation is below. My questions are in bold.

 

Thanks so much for joining me Pam. This blog is really about the journey that students take from the classroom to their careers, so I'm especially excited to hear from you with regard to how you ultimately decided to pursue neural science. What's your story?
When I was young, I was interested in everything under the sun - from music composition, to botany, to coding, to calculus. It seemed impossible to choose a single career path. But I had been interested in neuroscience ever since reading "A Mango-Shaped Space" by Wendy Mass, a novel about a young girl with synesthesia. After reading it, my mom took me to the university library so I could check out every book with "synesthesia" in the title! I went on to read tons of pop-neuroscience books in my free time. When it came time to choose an undergraduate major and eventual life path, it seemed clear that studying the brain would allow me to learn about all of the things I was interested in at the same time. The brain is the most complicated and important piece of our humanity; it’s responsible for our history, art, experiences, and relationships.

As a recent applicant to several graduate programs (and having turned down multiple offers of acceptance, if I recall correctly) you have a fresh take on what admissions committees and interviewers are looking for in future scientists. Talk to me about the admissions process and how best to prepare for it.

Graduate programs like the one I'm in are looking for students who are devoted to and eagerly interested in their field. To that end, it helps immensely to have a good amount of research experience under your belt. If you got your research start early in undergrad, you may be able to apply to Ph.D. programs during your senior year like I did, but often people take one or several gap years to either take a break from education or to get more research experience or a Master's degree before they dive into the Ph.D. world.

It's important to remember that competitive programs get several hundred applications each year, invite maybe 60 students to come interview, and then can only accept around half of those students to ensure that each class is small and close-knit. They want to see that applicants know what they're getting into, are deeply interested in the field, and have worked with professors and advisors who can attest to their hard work and passion. To show them that, your letters of recommendation should be from advisors with whom you've done research. And your personal statement should be focused on not just what you personally learned from your research, but why it’s important to the scientific community. There are many blogs out there with great grad school application advice if you take the time to look! It can really help to read others’ applications to get an idea of the correct format and information to include.

To that same end, what do you wish you had known going into undergrad?

Sometimes in undergrad, it's easy to get bogged down by prerequisites and required classes that don't seem to be what you came to college for. In large lectures full of competitive students (I'm looking at you, science classes that are also pre-med classes), it can feel discouraging to not have the personal attention of a teacher making sure you're keeping up with material. I think the most important thing that you learn in college is how to teach yourself, which seems dumb - why should you pay tuition to teach yourself? In actuality, the more you are able to teach yourself, the more you will actually get out of lectures. Take all of your classes with the goal of learning what personally interests you rather than just getting good grades. 

To those of us going into programs with incredibly structured curricula, the whole graduate process seems quite nebulous. What will your initial five years and beyond look like?

My program's average time to graduation is 5.5 years, but the goal is to graduate in 5 years (it can be easy to get caught up in long-lasting research projects). In the first year, we all take two core classes per semester. Neuroscience is a really unique discipline because we often get students who are coming from completely different backgrounds (physics, computer science, biology, or psychology), so we learn everything from basics to cutting-edge technologies and techniques. We also spend our first year doing rotations in two or three different laboratories to learn new skills and to see what it's like to work with different advisors before we choose our thesis advisor at the beginning of the second year. 

After our first year, the only classes we take are electives we’re interested in or that are relevant to our research. And when we’re not in class, we will be working in lab on our projects, trying to do research that leads to interesting results so that we can turn our work into defendable dissertations at the end of year five!

After graduation, those who want to go down the academic path will likely do postdocs (postdoctoral research fellowships) at new universities to beef up their research resumes before trying to become professors and start their own labs. Others will go into industry, getting what some call "real jobs" in tech, data science, or biomedical companies.

And what does your typical day look like, if there are any?
As a first year, I have class every morning and spend the rest of the day working in lab. Being in class with the other students in my cohort is super fun - I know I'll miss it next year! Working in lab feels just like it felt in undergrad (literally, I sit at the same desk that I sat at when I went to NYU as an undergraduate). My interests are mostly computational and theoretical, so there's no wet lab work for me - just a lot of programming on my computer, analyzing data, and meeting with my advisor and other members of my lab to discuss my project. Honestly, it's so ideal because I love taking classes with my friends, coding, and discussing science, so I get to do all of my favorite things every day.

Another thing that confuses me is the tuition/salary aspect of a graduate program. How do finances at a typical school work?

This topic is really variable depending on field and school, but for neuroscience and most other "hard" sciences, Ph.D. programs are generally fully funded. This means you get a salary (just like all of your friends working at "real" jobs!), which probably won't be super glamorous but is enough to live comfortably in your area. I earn enough to pay for necessities like rent and groceries, splurge every once in a while, and still save money every month. So basically, I do my favorite things every day and I get paid to do them! I promise I'm not trying to convert your pre-med readers (maybe).

What do you find most challenging about working in the scientific community today?

Since neuroscience is such an interdisciplinary field, it can feel like you need to know a little bit of everything to keep up. But all of my peers in my lab and cohort are so knowledgeable in so many different ways, and everyone is ridiculously willing to share their knowledge. I have to remember that when I get stuck on something in my research I don't understand, all I have to do is ask my fellow scientists and they will always come to my rescue!

And most rewarding?

As I advance in my career, I get more opportunities to give presentations, lectures, or act as a TA in undergrad classes. I love teaching, so I'm excited to be able to spread the neuroscience love!

Neural science is a rapidly evolving field. What are you working on right now?

I'm really interested in human learning, but right now I am actually doing a project on machine learning! Basically, my project aims to understand the way humans organize visual objects by examining how a computer algorithm would optimally organize itself to do the same thing. My dad thinks I'm creating the Terminator...

And what do you think you might ultimately want to study?

All of my experience teaching and tutoring has led me to wonder why people learn differently and how people learn in general. I'm keeping my interests broad as I work in different labs and try new things right now, but as long as I can keep using mathematics and computer science to study human learning and decision making, I'll be happy! 

I’d like to thank Pam for taking the time to answer my questions. If you have questions for her about entering neuroscience or academia in general, feel free to email me at dkellyhosa@gmail.com and I will get them to her.

 

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