People have told me you never forget your first love. Or, maybe you get over your first love, but that person always plays a special role in your life.
I can’t relate. Maybe this is more of an indication that until my current partner I was bad at choosing partners, or maybe I’m just cold hearted. I tend to think it’s the first. You see, it’s not that I haven’t had these feelings, I just haven’t had them about my first partner – I’ve had them about my first academic love.
This feels corny to say, but food was my first love. I had a broad education in high school, and didn’t have a strong idea of what I was interested in doing through most of it. When I got to college, I realized that I was interested in food and nutrition and began taking (the limited number of) courses my university offered. After my freshman year, I went to a hospital in Nyakibale, Uganda to help establish a sustainable malnutrition clinic. I struggled in more ways than one in Uganda. I still have lasting side effects from the illnesses I contracted while I was there, but more importantly I struggled with interfacing more with the logistics of global health than with food and nutrition.
When I got back to school I decided that global health would not be for me. Well, my body decided it would not be for me by being so sick most of the time I was there. I hadn’t given up on food yet though. I tried to make a special concentration (which is Harvard-speak for my own major) on food studies. When I was denied, I joined the Human Evolutionary Biology department because they offered the most classes on food and diet of all FAS departments. I took every class the department offered that pertained to food and eventually found a research project exploring diet and the evolution of gene copy number in dogs. Incidentally, this is where food started losing its footing, although at the time I felt this was the closest I had ever come to food. My research project was intimately tied to food – I spent months pouring over biochemical pathways of metabolism, reading papers about diet thousands of years ago, and endlessly thinking about starch. But I had landed in a developmental genetics lab, and was exposed to the suite of tools one could use to analyze sequencing data. Samtools and bam files made their way on to my radar, and I saw infinite potential in these tools that I had no idea how to use. I had come to the precipice of the rest of the world and seq-land, and was head over heels with the idea sequencing data.
To be clear, I didn’t have very many skills at this point. I was in love with ideas, but that was enough to get me started. After I graduated, I spent time in a lab that worked on mathematical modeling of evolution to explore barriers that maintained subspecies of snapdragon flowers in a hybrid zone. By this time, I had started to learn R and knew what the command line was, although I wasn’t at ease with it yet. In retrospect, some of the methods I employed were like taking a hammer to square and making fit into a circular opening – they weren’t wrong, just obtuse and slow (like performing over 1000 blasts with UniProt’s blast interface…). Again, though, I was exposed to more cool things that one could do with sequencing data. Here I began to fall in love with real things.
My next stint was in a wet lab, although 30% of my job was building and maintaining a database for the lab I worked in. I worked with primates and reproductive biology, and so some of our days after our female primates stopped cycling for the summer were a bit slower. I took on a pet project trying to identify a splice variant in a gene in monkeys that in humans is maybe (hand wave, hand wave) correlated with PCOS. Of course, instead of designing primers for the different splice variants and performing PCR on the samples that were in our freezer, I decided to teach myself RNA-seq analysis and look for it publicly available samples of monkey ovarian tissue. It took me six weeks to teach myself how to work with RNA-seq data, and in the end, I ended up doing PCR any way, but now I was hooked. Still terrified by all the things I didn’t know how to do, but I knew I would learn them.
And somehow during all of this, food fell by the wayside. When I started my PhD in Food Science (hah), I searched for labs where I could do metagenomics and metatranscriptomics. I was finally in the food oasis that UC Davis is, and I was searching for genetics. Luckily, I’ve been able to marry my first love to my second with my PhD project (looking at microbes and metabolites in olives), but it has been hard for me to admit that food is not the “it” thing for me anymore. I spent so much of my time in college clawing to study food, and now that I’m in a food school haven, my interests have morphed. I look upon food so fondly still. My mother is a nutritionist, and I have always thought that my love of food gave me an extra special connection with her. My interest in food gave me my first research experience, without which I never would have found my love of nucleotides. And now my love of food has brought me to an awesome school to do my PhD. Through these experiences I now understand why others never forget their first loves. First loves give someone so much, and help shape them in to the person they will become. In the end, they aren’t the one for that person forever, but that’s ok.