The fidelity of this transcript to the episode is not 100% but I’ve read it and the podcast should be as clear, if not clearer, in this written form.
The Skiveo Podcast
This is a podcast about a young female. This is a podcast about a young, black, Muslim female's journey from the world of humanities to the world of science at Princeton and beyond because I graduated already. So...
Central versus peripheral olfaction and what I did after tasting rejection my first year out of Princeton. Is that Ursinus minor? No, that's Urscience minority.
[00:01:22] Even after this junior paper, my thesis... my thesis was such that my professor, that same professor, he read some of it and he called me on my phone. Basically, he said, "can I give you a job. I read your thesis..." He did say that some of it was garbage. And honestly, I knew when I submitted it, some of it was garbage.
[00:01:54] So, my writing that thesis was about to not happen. So, I knew when I submitted it that a good amount of it was nonsense because what I even had to do was pad my thesis.
[00:02:14] I had to take large chunks of my junior paper and put them in my thesis and cite myself.
[00:02:24] I've never cited myself before. And you were allowed to do that but I won't say it was frowned upon but it was obvious to anyone looking at your thesis that "oh, some of this is not original." So, the parts that he was impressed with and thought was fantastic enough to give me a job before I even graduated and was even thinking of applying to any job...
I was not even looking for a job, interested in a job...
[00:02:55] The original parts of my thesis were the parts that he was impressed with and that's what prompted him to call me and offer me a job before I even graduated. And of course, I don't know if I said, "yes" immediately. But I think after speaking with my parents they were like (verbatim, at least in sentiment and yes, I love my parents) "what's wrong with you, accept it." So...
[00:03:17] And you even maybe thinking, "what's wrong with you?" "Why didn't you... why did you... what do you mean you don't think that you said 'yes' immediately."
[00:03:23] The reason would not have been that I was ungrateful. It would have been that I was not interested in doing work ever again.
Ok. I was so uninterested in working that I was about to not graduate Princeton.
[00:03:45] I was about to not get a degree because the thesis is required for you to graduate. And I was not doing it. Literally not even a paragraph...weeks after weeks, months after months. OK. You think I'm joking, I'm not joking. I was... It was my parents, Alhamdullilah (thanks be to God), who were like (i.e. verbatim, at least in sentiment) "no, you came this far. You literally have three weeks to graduation...just write it." So, honestly if it weren't for them, if it were up to me, I 99% guarantee you that either it would have been complete nonsense or nothing would have been submitted.
I mean that's all I can say. Anyway... So again, that's a second example of how I strengthened this relationship with this professor...by producing work that interested him so much that he reached out to me.
[00:04:43] If you're an introvert what you want to attempt to do is get the professor to reach out to you. To get a professor... you know professors are busy and have other demands on their life that are not just from their students.
[00:04:56] You have to do something remarkable. Again, if you're an extrovert, the professor doesn't have to reach out to you. You're an extrovert. You're going to go reach out to them. You're going to go form that relationship. If you're an introvert or if you're someone who wants to go the extra mile and you don't want the standard "oh, yes this person got an A+ in my class" letter. Then, you need to do something that prompts them to reach out to you. This first recommender has given me so many recommendations. I've lost count (of) how many times I've asked him for a recommendation. (And) he just gave me support because he was someone involved in graduate school admissions. So, (he) gave me advice about that, which I can share.
[00:05:37] So, my second recommender... Really, my second and third recommenders are not from Princeton; they're from the University of Pennsylvania.
[00:05:49] UPenn. So, my second recommender, she was the professor of a summer class I took at Penn in their post-bacc (post-baccalaureate) pre-med program. But it's also pre-dental, pre-veterinary...So, it's not just pre-med.
[00:06:07] I'm not recommending it. I'm just telling you that it's not purely pre-med.
[00:06:11] I would recommend you going hard in your science classes the first time around.
I would not recommend doing a post-bacc. Obviously, if you graduated with a history degree and you realized, "oh, I need to help people who don't have sufficient access to medical care and I want to be THAT person."
Obviously, you're going to need to go do a post-bacc program. You don't have any prerequisites. But people who already know that they want to do science when they're in undergrad. Please, please, take your science classes as seriously as humanly possible.
[00:06:51] And here's a tip that a therapist. Build a habit. She didn't say "build a habit." But at least for me there were... I don't even know how many times where I didn't feel like studying for my biochemistry exam.
And so, I would watch TV. I would watch TV and not study for this exam. OK.
[00:07:20] If you knew me before Princeton, you know that I was someone that when there was something to study for you don't see me playing any games. It's not funny. I'm not laughing. I'm not smiling. You don't see me messing around.
[00:07:37] So, for me to tell you that it got to the point where I would watch TV... I wasn't even a TV person. When I was in high school...when I was young, I was a book person. That might explain why I got a perfect score on the SAT critical reading section and the SAT essay.
[00:08:00] I was someone who read books.
I don't even know the number of hours a day I would spend reading books. But that was my thing. My thing wasn't TV. When I was young (I'm 25 now), iPads, iPhones, laptops... The technology that we have now that didn't exist when I was 6, 7, 8, 9, (or) 10 years old.
[00:08:20] And so, there wasn't even an opportunity for me to become obsessed with that stuff. The thing that we had when I was young was TV. But even that I would do like as a treat (none of this was parent-enforced). It wasn't something that was my go-to.
So, for me to tell you that I had a biochemistry exam and I'm watching TV instead of studying. You know that someone whose previous behavior was such that they didn't even...they weren't even a TV watcher. They (I) got into Princeton. They (I) got into every college they applied to, except Harvard where they were wait-listed. That's a shift in behavior...This is what you've got to do.
[00:09:05] You're never going to feel like studying for that exam. You're never going to feel like doing X. You just have to start doing it.
[00:09:15] Just go start. Just pick up the pen. Open the book. Get the practice problems. Get the pencil. Get the notebook. Just start writing.
Just start doing it.
[00:09:30] So that's my advice for people who are still in college and like hate their science classes, their STEM classes and are maybe suffering from disorders that make it harder for them to feel motivated and pay attention and grind.
[00:09:51] Just start doing it. I've found--just from my own experiences in life and I'm not even... I sound like I'm 80 years old but I'm not--
[00:10:08] If you just form the habit of doing something. You just show up. You just show up. You show up to a certain place in the library with your biochemistry book even when you don't feel like it and you commit to staying there for at least one hour before giving up and going back to your dorm and you do that every Tuesday, Thursday, (and) Sunday (and) you do that for the entire semester, you'll find that even on the Tuesday when you don't feel like going to the library you're prepared to go to the library. If you just build the habit, it can take the place of willpower. Having a habit can substitute for willpower. If you're depressed, you probably don't have willpower. You need to go build the habit. If you're someone who procrastinates like crazy, build the habit of showing up. There's a book by Charles Duhigg called "The Power of Habit."
So that's my recommendation.
[00:11:06] But my second recommender... So, I took her summer course, and this was an online course.
And I got an A in this class. This was the way that I got my foot in the door...
When I asked her, "oh, could you write me a strong letter of recommendation?" (Not exactly in that way.)
So, she said (verbatim in sentiment at least), "okay, let's meet."
[00:11:25] So, I met with her and she was one of the few people who, after I asked them for a letter of recommendation, didn't just say "yes" knowing in their mind, I'm just going to write a standard letter. I'm just going to write the letter that I write for everyone else.
[00:11:42] She really was genuinely interested and committed to writing a letter that was unique to me. And I think that's why she wanted to meet with me.
[00:11:50] The first letter I wanted was for a science apprenticeship program at Monell (Monell Chemical Senses Center) in Philadelphia. Monell is the Smell and Taste Institute in Philadelphia.
[00:12:06] Basically, the way I strengthened this relationship... it was through these meetings I had with her because I went back to her again for another letter of recommendation for a scholarship. Then I went to her again for a letter of recommendation for another program. I had to meet with her multiple times and each time I met with her (the relationship became stronger). And my meeting with her was non-negotiable. When she said (verbatim in sentiment), "okay, meet with me." She didn't mean it (as) a suggestion. She meant it (as) "I have to meet with you." Because I replied one time saying (figuratively saying), "oh... well... blah blah blah blah blah blah" (to weasel my way out of a novel social interaction). Because I would...do something stupid like that. But then she responded (not verbatim), "no... let's figure something out."
[00:12:42] So. that's how I strengthened my relationship with this professor, which is the conventional way that I kind of belittled... (...(couldn't figure out the appropriate word choice), let's just say belittled, at the beginning of this...
[00:12:53] But the thing that's unique is that I didn't have to say "oh, can we set up a meeting." Because (as) I said, I'm deeply shy. She was the one who reached out to me because she was genuinely interested in writing a serious letter of recommendation and not just the standard letter that some professors will write for you, if you just got a high grade in their class. So, it was through these meetings that she learned more about me and gained more material to use to flush out the letters that she wrote for me.
[00:13:25] So, my advice: The lesson I draw from this is that if you have a STEM professor who's very willing to meet with you one or more times to learn about you for one recommendation letter, that's a good sign that that person wants to write you a strong letter of recommendation. So, basically try to learn whether that professor is someone who would write you a serious letter of recommendation. What I learned when I was in Princeton is that it's not enough to ask a professor, "oh, can you write me a letter of recommendation."
[00:13:55] I mean it is, if you don't care what they write. But I learned that the better question to ask is, can you write me a strong letter of recommendation. Because if someone knows already "oh, I don't know you that well" or "I'm not going to have a lot of time to get to know you," they're not going to reply, "yes, I can write you a strong letter."
They know from the e-mail that you're looking for someone legit.
So, I feel like decent people won't say yes "I'm going to write you a strong letter" when they know already that they're not going to take any extra steps to make sure your letter is unique or especially powerful.
[00:14:38] But if you say, "oh, can you write me a letter of recommendation?"
[00:14:42] Pretty much any professor will say "yes" to that because that doesn't require a lot from them. Maybe they wrote a letter for someone two days ago and they are going to take that letter and stick your name in it and hand that in and be like "yep, I wrote you a letter of recommendation."
[00:14:57] You don't know. I'm not saying that professors do that. I'm just saying theoretically they could just go off of a form that they have. They could just have a template. They could just not put in any unique effort for you because you just asked the basic question:
"Can you write me a letter of recommendation?"
[00:15:20] So, my third recommender: The lessons I draw from this, I think are going to be more useful. So, I need to first start with how we even came into contact with one another because technically it wasn't supposed to happen.
[00:15:53] Now, in this post-bacc program I needed a class that was a specialized science class because I already had the pre-med requirements.
[00:16:08] And when you're in this program, you either go one of two routes: the basic science route or the specialized studies route. The point is that the basic science route is for people who have never taken any pre-med requirements so they just need to take all the prerequisites whereas the specialized studies route is for people who took the prerequisites and maybe they need to repeat one or two, but the bulk of their courses are going to be new science courses to show, "oh, I can do science. I can think like a scientist or I can think like a veterinarian." And this route is for people who need a stronger science GPA. Because (they) didn't do so hot in all of their pre-med requirements. So, their science GPA is lower than they want. They need it to be more competitive.
So, I'm looking for a specialized science class to take and there's restrictions for people in the post-bacc program. It counts as an undergrad program, but you're not given preference (over the traditional undergrads). There's only certain departments whose classes you can definitely enroll in.
[00:17:24] But if you wanted to do a class in a department that they don't normally let post-bacc students take classes in (in which they don't normally let post-bacc students take classes), you would have to fill out a form to submit to the director of the post-bacc program and maybe she would say "yes," (i.e. agree, not literally say, "yes") to your request. You have to have a compelling reason (to add to your form). I found this computational biology class. The compelling reason that I had was that because I was a molecular biology major at Princeton (and) because I had already taken my pre-med requirements, the science classes that they were offering to the post-bacc students were not really different from what I had already learned as a Molecular Biology major. And so, my argument was that it doesn't make sense for me to take a Genetics class or a Genetics-related class again. What they were providing to me as a post-bacc student was not unique. If I wanted to apply to a program after them and that program looked at my post-bacc courses and my undergrad courses, they would just be like "oh, why are you repeating so many things?"
[00:18:37] And the goal of this program was to get you into a school.
So, I got the approval for this class, that was honestly outside of my comfort zone because it combined math and biology. But I knew that computational biology was the future or is the future of medicine and science because of the breadth of data that exists in these fields.
You need a computer. A human being is not sufficient to make sense of all of it.
So, that's why I wanted to take this class. But the class was full and when I somehow was able to get into a class despite it being full, I was surprised. But then I knew, "OK. I already missed a week."
[00:19:40] Now, you know if you already missed a week... I may have even missed up to two weeks. So, I emailed the professor.
[00:19:51] And (I should note) there were other classes that I was considering because I didn't know for sure if I would be able to do this Computational Biology class.
(So, I had I had contacted other professors. The professor of this computational biology class was the only one who responded but maybe the others had legitimate reasons for not responding.)
[00:20:12] We scheduled a meeting so that he could tell me what I missed. I remember my dad drove me to Philadelphia (and) dropped me off in front of his building. (He and I were sharing a car.) It was September, but the building was locked because you need a card, a student ID card to enter the building. And because I was a post-bacc student and the semester had just started and my only class in the program was an online class at that point, I didn't have a student card. I never went to the student card-making office to get a student ID card. So, basically as a hijabi and a black woman, I had to ask random people (verbatim at least in sentiment), "can you get me into this building?" I found someone who was smoking near the building. For some reason, it looked like he was someone who had access to the building. And so, I asked him (the same or a similar question) and he let me in. I went to the professor's room but there was a sign saying that something had come up and he couldn't meet with me until an hour later. So, basically, I'm walking around this lab... not a particular person's lab. The building was a building for laboratories. So, each floor had however many labs and there were common areas where you could sit on a couch, use a microwave, go to the water cooler... I found one common area and set up my stuff (and) my laptop. I got out my notes because I was trying to understand the notes that this professor put up for the first week of class. And I was just... (It was very clear that I was in a different territory.) I mean the notes were making sense, but I could tell that it was very very very very very possible that I would not be able to do this class because the notes were so technical... You know how classes that are technical... At the beginning, it seems like "oh, OK, I can handle this" but because they're so technical and it's its own field, you know that as you progress in this class, it's possible it will become more and more difficult just because for any technical field at the very beginning it will seem simple because they're not trying to inundate you with every single detail but obviously as you progress, more and more details are coming at you that you need to know to build a foundation of knowledge on which you add more things that you need to know.
[00:23:26] That's the impression I was getting from these notes. (The impression) was "OK, I'm understanding it now but it's possible that I'm not going to understand future notes." So, however long a period of time passes...
[00:23:40] People may assume that when you're wearing hijab, you're comfortable wearing it and it's not that I wasn't comfortable. It's just that I still very much had anxiety about interacting with people in it. Because you just never know. If you're a hijabi, you just don't know, especially if you're meeting someone for the first time. Self-talk that never consciously took place: OK, I have to wear this hijab and I'm not wearing it for people. At the same time...
[00:24:28] So, I met with this professor in his office. And one of the first questions he asked me, if not the first question... And I should note that this (interaction went) the second way. This went the way of "oh, your hijab doesn't bother me." It was almost as if he didn't recognize that it was hijab or that I was Muslim. It seemed to me that he thought oh I'm just wearing this. And as a black hijabi...if there's any black hijabis out there, do you ever feel like your Muslim identity is not as obvious. I feel like it takes longer for people to deeply understand that I'm Muslim.
[00:25:27] It's almost as if (the combination of my hijab with) my blackness is disarming. I was reading a book because I took a social psychology class at Princeton because for a moment there I was considering majoring in Psychology. (I laugh.) I'm not laughing because that's a bad idea. I'm just laughing because if you listened to me up until this point, you're probably thinking "dang, this girl was considering pre-med and then she was like 'no, I don't want to be a pre-med.' And then she was like 'I want to be a writer. I want to be a journalist.'" And now she's talking about Psychology and she's talking about Comparative Literature and she's talking about English and she's talking about Mol Bio (Molecular Biology) and then she's talking about grad school..." So, that's why I'm laughing.
[00:26:04] Anyway, one of the books I had to read for this class, "Whistling Vivaldi." V-I-V-A-L-D-I. And it's called "Whistling Vivaldi" because there was a moment in the book where a person was walking down the street. There was this elderly white couple walking near him and he could feel... he could feel them becoming nervous because he was black.
[00:26:34] And so what he did (was) he started whistling Vivaldi--Vivaldi is a classical composer (no, I don't listen to music)--to send the signal to them that he's educated, he's not threatening. (Whistling) to send the message (that) I'm not violent. I'm not going to hurt you because I'm black. I speak the language that you speak.
[00:26:55] That's why it's weird for me (as a black hijabi). You would think being black would not be something that disarms people. Some people get nervous or violent or ignorant or implicitly racist.
[00:27:35] One of the first questions he asked me was (verbatim at least in sentiment) "how did you get into this class. It was closed." And we basically were almost laughing (i.e. were really amused; I chuckled, and he was smiling, if not also chuckling) about this because to this day I still don't understand. This class was closed. And he's a computer person. So, if anyone you know between the two of us could have come up with an idea for how that happened, I feel like it would have been him.
[00:28:01] Then he wanted to know about me because he learned that I was in the post-bacc program (so) I wasn't in the regular undergraduate program. I told him I graduated from Princeton at that time around two years ago and I went into more detail about my intellectual journey (to neuroscience). And I remember I was describing central olfaction. And central olfaction is different from peripheral olfaction because peripheral olfaction involves the odorant receptors in the nasal neuroepithelium. That part of olfaction you would call peripheral olfaction because it involves neurons that are peripheral to the central nervous system, which consists of your brain and your spinal cord. Central olfaction... So, I'm not going to get into a long explanation.
[00:28:57] The neurons in the neuroepithelium or I guess neuroepithelial cells in the neuroepithelium of your nose that hold the odorant receptors, the proteins that recognize odorants (their) axons "impinge on" either a mitral cell or a tufted cell. These cells, they're not cells, they're neurons, exist in this structure called the olfactory bulb.
If you take your middle finger and your index finger over your nose on your eyebrows, your olfactory bulbs are there; and your olfactory bulb is a part of your brain.
It's not exposed to the external world like (the) neuroepithelial cells in your nose are. And so that's what I mean (or anyone means) when I (they) say central olfaction.
[00:29:51] So, I was describing something that had to do with central olfaction. And then he said (verbatim at least in sentiment), "oh, don't you mean..." He thought (that) what I was describing (that) I got it wrong, (that) the correct context of what I was describing was peripheral olfaction but because I did all this work I knew that it was in the context of central olfaction. So, I had to clarify (it) to him (verbatim, at least in sentiment), "no, peripheral olfaction is a separate system." And he was not offended by this clarification. It seemed as if he was impressed on some level that I even had the knowledge to correct him.
[00:30:35] I (also) told him about how I decided to apply to the post-bacc program. And why I decided to apply was because... Ironically, I was someone who got into every college/university I applied to when I was in high school, except Harvard where I was wait-listed, but was rejected from every graduate school I applied to from undergrad. So...
[00:31:06] My professor or my supervisor, (my) adviser (who was) mentioned at the beginning (of this episode), he thought that the reason for this rejection or these rejections was the fact that my lab experience, my bench experience was minimal. Very minimal.
[00:31:27] And it's not that I didn't believe him because from stalking forums or groups online, I learned that's a good number of people (who were) applying to graduate school (at the same time as me), if not everyone whose stats I read, had dope bench experience. They were not playing around. But, I thought to myself, "oh, I have these really excellent ideas. I came up with these original models..." I mean I thought that would be sufficient, not sufficient but I thought that they (admissions committees) would appreciate the intellectual curiosity and power that I demonstrated as an undergraduate student and the lab experience that I didn't have wouldn't be that huge a factor or be that big a point against me. And in my mind, I was thinking "oh, it's graduate school. Don't I go to graduate school to get lab experience." But for anyone who is not near that applying to graduate school stage, it's not like that. You need to have that experience. First of all, from a pragmatic point of view, if you don't know if you like or can hack long-term lab projects, it doesn't make sense, to me at least, to commit to graduate school because graduate school is 6, 7, 5, (and maybe even) 8 years. It's a long time. So, if you just apply and you don't even know if you're someone who has the fortitude or desire to commit to projects that may not necessarily be in line with what you want to ultimately do, you are at a disadvantage compared to someone who has had a year or two of experience and has learned that they can tolerate being lowly paid labor for someone else's professional and/or academic ambitions.
[00:33:51] So, he thought it was because I didn't have...really any serious lab experience. That's what my professor or supervisor thought. I thought it was that and also the fact that my GPA, especially my science GPA was not nearly as strong as some of the people who I saw applying to either similar or the same exact programs as me. I thought (at least verbatim in sentiment), "okay, I need to go take more science classes." So, that's how my applying to the post-bacc program happened. And also, I thought (verbatim at least in sentiment),"there's professors there. There's a biology department there. It's the University of Pennsylvania, which has such a strong medicine and science-driven academic environment. In fact, the friend (not like that) I mentioned whose graduating GPA was a 3.99. He had to apply to 70 or around 70 positions until he finally got word back from two places. And one of them was UPenn; (he received an offer for) a lab tech position at UPenn. Yes, to me also, it was crazy that someone with that high a GPA and with the credentials that he had had to look for so long for one position.
So, that's why I even applied to this program (because of those rejections). So, I was explaining to this professor that one of the things I wanted to do to get into graduate school or an MD./Ph.D program was to join a lab so that I could gain experience.
[00:35:42] And then he asked (verbatim in sentiment), "oh, have (you) had any luck?"
And I basically said, which is true, that it was hard to find a position (because) anyone knows that if you don't have any experience (some groups are extremely reluctant to become the first place you gain experience).
[00:35:55] So, the response of this professor was (verbatim in sentiment at least), "OK. If you still can't find a position, drop me a note (meaning send him an email) and I can give you a spot in my lab." (The "drop me a note" was verbatim because I never heard anyone talk about email in those terms before, so the phrase stuck with me.) And (then) he was explaining (the caveat) that the work his lab focuses on is different from what I want to do. (The position was wonderful; and I still reminisce about it but it was not paid. However, in another episode I plan/want to discuss the importance of unpaid work.) Then eventually we did talk about the week or so that I had missed already and whether I thought, based on the notes that I started reading, I could catch up or even stay in this class. He (explained) that it's not an easy class (but he made it seem doable).
[00:36:38] (After the meeting,) I went back out to the lounge area open to the hallway. The problem was that... Isa G's "Going Home" plays: "...looking for happiness and losing it to feeling lost. So, I'm walking on the path..."