Science saved my life. Many people can say that, but they’re usually talking about new treatments. That’s not my story though. Instead, I want to tell you about how doing science, and being a graduate student, helped me to survive. There’s never a good time in life to get seriously and devastatingly ill, but I’ll always be grateful that I was at UC Berkeley when it happened. Being a researcher helped to prepare me for a grave and unexpected challenge, and I think you’ll see that it’s also done the same for you.
I got sick early on in graduate school. It didn’t happen all at once, but bit-by-bit my life was completely dismantled. In short order I was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmias and autonomic dysfunction, Crohn’s Disease, a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and a mast cell disease. Despite repeated questioning, my mother maintains that I was never dropped in a mutagen as a young child.
The mast cell disease was by far the most problematic. Mast cells are a normal part of the innate immune system, but when they proliferate or become dysregulated, they create an inflammatory and allergic disease with serious multi-system comorbidities. They are notoriously difficult to control. Routine encounters with everyday life can lead to anaphylaxis, cardiac arrhythmias, GI bleeds, loss of consciousness, and episodes of paralysis - just to name a few. Everything you eat, touch, or breathe is a potential threat. Reactions can escalate from minor to life-threatening in minutes. I spent many days and nights in the emergency room and the hospital. When my undergrads were away on Spring Break, I was here in Berkeley trying chemotherapy.
The mast cell disease had a way of robbing me not only of my future, but also my past. My existence was so utterly transformed that the life I led, and the person I was, became as unfamiliar as a stranger. I disappeared beneath the mounting restrictions and isolation, and was forced to stop doing many of the things that made me who I am.
One of the only things I was able to hold on to from my old life was science. Stephen Hawking said that, “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.” That became my new mantra. Whatever roadblocks my disease put up, I would find a way to adapt and succeed. The lab itself quickly became a danger zone, so with uncommon flexibility and guidance from my advisor, Michael Eisen, I left the wet-lab behind and became a computational biologist. For that, I’ll always be grateful. So long as I had a laptop and an internet connection, I could work on my thesis, even if I was in a hospital bed. Science became one of the only constants in my life. It gave me pleasure and it gave me purpose. It was a reason to keep fighting. Doing research and teaching here at Berkeley has been one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life.
By the way, Michael Eisen is running for the US Senate next year. So now that you know what a great guy he is, you should totally consider voting for him. He’s a big New England Patriots fan, but no one’s perfect.
Life was hard, but I had a lot of help along the way. When I got seriously ill, my mother - a registered nurse - retired early, sold her home in New York, and moved to Berkeley. If it wasn’t for her love, her expertise, and her willingness to sacrifice, I wouldn’t be talking to you today. I also couldn’t have done it without support from family, friends, doctors, pharmacists, and the department of MCB. My circumstances may be unique, but I don’t think I’m alone in needing help to get through graduate school. I think it’s safe to say that everyone on stage today is here because somewhere along the way, they received help and support from family, friends, peers, and mentors.
It turns out that completing a Ph.D. in the sciences is a lot like being seriously and chronically ill. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that doing a Ph.D. is pathological. But the same skills that help you thrive in graduate school can also help you survive in real life. This is especially true in today’s world where scientists face unique challenges.
Completing a Ph.D. takes hard work and determination over the course of five or six years. If you’re looking for a quick payoff, you might want to consider an MBA. As much as you’d like to plan things out in detail, things will inevitably change along the way, often in unpredictable ways. So you have to be comfortable with uncertainty, and you have to be willing to adapt. Most important of all, you have to be prepared to fail - repeatedly.
Our culture is so obsessed with winning and success that we’ve bought into the myth that highly successful people never fail. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone fails at some point; that’s a given. What matters is how you use it. The nice thing about science is that it teaches you early on that failure is an integral part of the process. Few experiments work the first time, or even the second or the third. What you thought would take one month ends up taking six. But failure is not permanent, and it teaches you things that success never could.
This was not significantly different than my experience with chronic illness. Doctors still have much to learn when it comes to treating mast cell diseases, so it often comes down to trial and painful error. I say “painful” because the error part often includes things like anaphylaxis. This process can go on for months, or even years, before you find a medication regimen that helps. My life was filled with uncertainty. New and unexpected problems frequently arose. Treatment attempts often ended in failure. But my experience as a researcher taught me that progress could be made in such ways, and so I moved forward in the only way I could, confident that things would eventually improve.
I’m not better yet, but I’ve made significant progress, and I know that I’ll continue to do so. I also know that I’m incredibly lucky to be here at Berkeley right now, because it’s an exciting time to be a biologist. The invention of CRISPR/CAS9 genome editing in the Doudna and Charpentier Labs helped to usher in a new golden age of molecular biology. Genomics is moving deeper into the clinic, and genome editing is poised to follow. The immune system is being harnessed to target cancer. We’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets, and soon we’ll be able to study their atmospheres for signs of life. And yet, our challenges as scientists and citizens have never seemed greater. Our civilization is threatened by unchecked climate change. Large portions of the public deny climate science, or the safety of vaccines and genetically modified organisms. The very notion of independently verifiable facts is being subverted. The President proposes draconian budget cuts for publicly funded science. Congress would make health insurance inaccessible for millions. Rights that are enshrined in the Constitution are under threat.
What are we supposed to do in the face of so many challenges? Start small. Start where you can. Start with what’s right in front of you. You don’t have to fix everything to have a large impact. That’s a lesson I learned from my grandmother.
My grandmother was an immigrant. She was born in Belgium and lived under Nazis occupation during WWII. Her father owned a lumber yard, and one of his employees - a Deaf man named Jan who took care of his elderly mother - received orders for deportation to a labor camp. Labor camps were not concentration camps, but the end result was often the same. My grandmother took it upon herself to plead Jan’s case to the German authorities. Surprisingly they relented, and granted him an exemption. But she took a risk bringing herself to the attention of the Germans. Not long after this my grandmother received her own deportation orders. She promptly burned them. She did the same thing with the second and third sets. She couldn’t stop them from dragging her out of her home, but she wasn’t going to show up for them. Fortunately, the war ended before that happened. Jan was deeply grateful for what my grandmother had done. When she became engaged to my grandfather, an American soldier stationed in Belgium, Jan gave her four tiny diamond chips. Those diamond chips were set in her engagement ring.
When I first heard this story, many years ago, it left a lasting impression. For starters, Grandma was evidently a total badass back in the day! I thought she was all hugs, and kisses, and apple pie, but when it mattered the most she had the courage to risk her own safety to save someone else. Second, sometimes all it takes to save a life is for one person to stand up, place themselves squarely in front of those who are vulnerable, and say, “You can’t have them.” My grandmother couldn’t do anything to affect the outcome of the war, but she could help the person in front of her, and that was enough.
However great our challenges may be, there is hope to be found in people who use their skills and abilities in service of others. One of the things that always impressed me about the faculty and graduate students at Berkeley was that they were not only world class researchers, but people who cared deeply about issues outside of the laboratory. The graduating class will leave Berkeley to pursue a wide range of careers inside and outside of academia. That’s a good thing, because the world needs you right now in many different places. You’ve solved hard problems. You’ve expanded the scope of human knowledge and understanding. You’ve educated and inspired undergrads. You’ve proven that once you set a goal, you don’t quit. No one is poised to effect greater change than you. Good luck!
The Unexpected Way Science Saved My Life
MCB Commencement Speech
I was honored to be one of the speakers at the 2017 doctoral commencement ceremony for the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) at UC Berkeley. I wasn't able to wear the tam and gown during the ceremony - for reasons that will hopefully be clear after reading my speech - but I briefly donned them afterwards for a few quick photos.