How Does Research Experience Shape Your Future

by Adrienne Mueller, PhD
June 15, 2021

"If you’re interested in science, you should apply for the nursing program," is not an uncommon sentiment in Bakersfield. It’s not that pursuing a PhD or MD are unheard of; it’s just that they’re not common choices. Exposure to research can be transformative and two young scientists, who spent their pandemics working as research assistants in the lab of Dr. Joseph C. Wu, Director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, explain how they have come to the decision to pursue a higher degree. Starting in the Fall, Jessica Malisa, originally from Zimbabwe and who moved to Orange County when she was 3, will start her MD degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and Nicole Lopez, originally from Bakersfield, California, will start her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at University of California, San Diego.

Different Interests but Shared Experiences

Exposure to research has been valuable and inspiring in very different ways for both Jessica and Nicole, but they share passion to get at the root of hard questions. Jessica was motivated by directly seeing how patient care could be translated into scientific questions, "Working in Joe’s lab was really great because I would see how a physician scientist would come to a question based on something that their patients were personally experiencing. Seeing that translational pipeline: from meeting the patient, to identifying a problem, to starting a study - was great for me." Whereas Nicole has been motivated by the fundamental ‘whys’, "I want to understand how the molecular mechanisms and cellular process – the processes that make us, that are us – go awry in disease and death. Studying science helps me make meaning out of life and why we’re here."

But the decision to pursue advanced degrees wasn’t a foregone conclusion; both Jessica and Nicole struggled with doubts about their abilities and whether it was the right fit. When asked what advice they’d give to students trying to decide whether to pursue careers in science or medicine, Jessica and Nicole both urged students to overcome their personal demons. "If something interests you and it seems hard, don't let the difficulty of it get in your way. If you're passionate about it and you want to learn about it, you can learn anything - you just have to work hard and put the time and effort in,” said Nicole. "Thinking, 'Do I really belong here? Is this for me?' is something everyone experiences. What helped me overcome the self-doubt was faking it until I made it and also just focusing less on myself and looking more at the opportunities that I got from the experience,” shared Jessica.

Opportunities for Support

A key experience that both Jessica and Nicole also share is strong support from their mentors in the Wu lab - Joe himself, and also all the other early career scientists that work with them on their projects. "When I entered Joe’s lab, I did not think I was going to be pursuing a PhD, but Joe was one of the first people who told me I can do science, that I can keep going - that I was going to have to work really hard, but that I can do it. Having that type of support completely changed the trajectory of my career. I think it makes the difference between someone who just stops early on, and someone who keeps going," said Nicole. Beyond personal support, working in a lab provides a great opportunity for teamwork, collaboration, and the discovery of shared interests. "I had great mentors in the lab and I really feel lucky to have met them. They definitely helped me prepare my application, but also explore my interests outside of basic science in racial and ethnic health care disparities," shared Jessica.

And in terms of their future careers, academia and medicine will also give both Jessica and Nicole the opportunity to support others in ways that are especially meaningful to them.  For Nicole, "I want to have a position in science, where I can not only do science that is meaningful to me and helpful for others, but a position where I can mentor other students. Students are so impressionable, and I think they just need exposure." And for Jessica, "I know that there's a big gap in health care for minority communities and that causes a lot of medical distress. That's part of the reason I want to go into medicine - to be a doctor for those people and those populations that are usually overlooked."

Looking Ahead

What’s next for Jessica and Nicole? Jessica is thrilled to start her MD at USC, "because the curriculum emphasizes not only being a physician and a scientist, but also just a model citizen that contributes to the world around you." And Nicole is excited to start her PhD, "to help make meaning of the day to day and why we're here and to hopefully help people along the way. To understand disease and create new therapeutics - that's the dream I hope I can spend my career pursuing." Exposure to research can pave the way for many different futures in medicine and academia, and also to careers in industry, government, and beyond. Jessica and Nicole are leaving Stanford to pursue their dreams and make a difference in the world, and the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute hopes to inspire many more young scientists to do the same.

Jessica Malisa, former Life Science Research Professional in the lab of Dr. Joseph C. Wu and MD candidate at the University of Southern California.

Nicole Lopez, Life Science Research Professional in the lab of Dr. Joseph C. Wu and future PhD candidate at University of California, San Diego