I remember the day I got called into my high school counselor’s office because she heard a rumor that I wasn’t planning on going to college. Both my parents had gone and my Dad even had his PhD, but I’d just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I wanted to explore and read books at my own pace. I had a lot of curiosity for things outside the classroom. My guidance counselor had other plans for me and persuaded me to apply to the University of Washington, where I started that fall.
Before long, I had dropped out of 11 classes because I didn’t see the point of going. As a kid who grew up on a farm in rural Washington state, I loved backpacking and dreamed of becoming a nature photographer. So it was a stroke of luck that I had a botany class that transformed what I had been looking at all around me. Botany class made sense to me because now I could begin to understand ecosystems, the names of plants and how they coexisted together.
This particular botany course was advanced, so everyone was talking over my head and I quickly realized that I had a lot of catching up to do. So I began to ask a lot of questions, which always made me stand out, but I was comfortable with it because I have always been a little different. My grandparents are from Mexico, but in a rural community, we were the only Chicano family. Visiting my mom’s family in San Jose, everyone spoke Spanish (whereas I didn’t) and I felt a strange isolation. And living in Washington state, I was called “wetback” and “beaner”. But all this made me unafraid to stand out, so I kept asking questions, which made professors want to work with me and they often became my mentors.
By switching to botany as my major, my grades went from terrible to really good. I took a class at the marine station where we did experiments changing water viscosity and monitoring how larvae were swimming. I had so much fun with these experiments that I asked if I could continue doing the work. The team at the marine station gave me full run of their lab, which is something that has continued to be a pattern in my life. When I make a pitch to explore something further, there have always been people who open the door, give me a chance and believe in me to do my own research.
For instance, I met a visiting professor from the Netherlands who asked me whether I wanted to do a PhD in his lab studying marine invertebrates. I hadn’t even thought about graduate school at that point, but I felt it was too good to pass up and I went to Europe.
Or when I attended a genomics conference to give a talk on snails and a guy from UC Berkeley approached me afterwards. We got to talking about snails and three hours later, he asked me whether I wanted to do a post-doc to map their genome. So I went off to UC Berkeley.
And now, I am a research fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, researching cephalopods like pygmy octopus and pygmy squid. What’s fascinating about studying cephalopods is that evolution has created two lineages. We know that humans used to have a simple nervous system and therefore we shared a common ancestor. Cephalopods elaborated on those structures, so we can examine the complexity of the brain as compared to vertebrates to see the basic principles of how they are made.
Much of our focus in the lab has been studying the effects of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) to create more social behaviors. Previous studies have shows that the same ion transporter exists in both octopus and squid, suggesting that our social behaviors come from an ancient circuit. Most scientists tend to think of octopi as anti-social, but when they are treated with MDMA, they begin to spend more time with others, making contact and searching out other octopus in their tanks. We often tell ourselves that humans are so complex that we can’t be understood, but our research suggests otherwise and allows us to get deeper insight from a scientific standpoint.
This year, we hired a talented scientist to work in our lab. She was an intern before, working full-time as a waitress, going to school full-time, doing her research and balancing family. It took her 7 years to graduate because of all she had to juggle. I saw her natural ability to work hard and problem solve. She didn’t have the best grades or the most prestigious resume, but she had a lot of potential that she just didn’t see yet, so we hired her.
I remembered how important it was for my unusual career path to have the doors opened and be given the chance to exceed expectations, and that is exactly what she has done. A visiting professor from NYU Abu Dhabi collaborated with us recently and was deeply impressed by her. Also, we recently ran a workshop on genetic tools in cephalopods, with participants from top labs around the world. She taught the core methods and by the end of the workshop, participants would walk right past me to ask her questions, seeking out her guidance. I can’t tell you how great that felt.
You don’t have to be a genius to be a great scientist or even be a career scientist to research and ask questions. My story isn’t that I am smarter than anyone else. People want someone in their lab who wants to be there and work hard. In some sense, when you fall outside the communities around you, you can either feel isolated or you can gather strength as an individual. And you find empowerment to follow what you think is exciting.