Do not be afraid to walk your own path, whether in science or not.
Growing up in China and Germany, my parents encouraged me to participate in mathematics and biology competitions, something I really enjoyed. Solving problems and puzzles always filled me with a sense of satisfaction, and that aspect of science still appeals to me today. I knew that I wanted to do science, so during my undergraduate, I applied to as many research internships as I could. Two of my internships were in immunology laboratories, during one of which I first heard about microglia. Fascinated by the fact that these cells can move around your brain and eat up neurons, which spurred me on to pursue them in my research, ever since. I was very lucky to have brilliant and supportive supervisors during my Ph.D. However, even within a supportive environment, there will be times when you doubt yourself. Mental health issues are common in academia, as competition for grants is fierce and job stability, rare. What I learned is to never be afraid to ask for help, and build your own support network that you can rely on. Ultimately, do not be afraid to walk your own path, whether in science or not. There are so many different ways of doing neuroscience, which I only realized after entering the field. You can study the brain from the molecular and cellular scales up to systems and behavior, and the skills involved can include biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, and everything in between. Regardless of your background, you can find a niche in neuroscience to apply your skills. However, as technology advances, the bottleneck in science has often become data analysis rather than data acquisition, so computational skills are becoming increasingly indispensable.
What I enjoy most about working in academia is the relative freedom to plan your own day and the intellectual stimulation you get from your colleagues. You never stop learning new things. Science has certainly shaped my thinking and I apply it to everyday problems the same way I apply it at work. If you are thinking of doing a Ph.D., get research experience as early on as you can. It doesn’t really matter which field, but you’ll get a sense of what science is like, and it will help with your applications. Doing a Ph.D. prepares you for more than just science. Even if you do not stay in research, it can be a valuable experience. You learn to think independently, be persistent, and gain valuable management and problem-solving skills. In the words of my former Ph.D. supervisor: “Plough your own furrow”, and don’t be afraid of change.
Yajing Xu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, where she studies how inflammation and other immune reactions (such as influenza) affect brain function, focusing in particular on a type of immune cell in the brain called microglia.