Friday, July 10, 2015

Year 2 of FrankenFoodFacts

Hi there peeps,

Well, FrankenFoodFacts turned two. Last year, I marked its birthday by making a top 10 list of the things I had learned about our food system in my first year of reading and learning about GMOs. But a very recent post pretty much did that for me already. I've been wondering all day, between incubations and experiments, how I should mark the occasion and I decided that perhaps I should write about something different altogether: how I became a scientist. So consider this my contribution to the #ScientistsArePeople campaign, started by Mommy PhD (you should follow her on Facebook).

Thus, on the occasion of FrankenFoodFacts second anniversary, I will share with you this tale. Also, work's crazy busy right now and I don't have time to read papers, so this is an easy cop out.

Join the #ScientistArePeople campaign by @mommyphd2 !
To learn more, see here.
I've already shared with you that I was raised in Venezuela. I attended a private school, which unlike United States and Canada, is the norm for lower-middle class through upper class families. The Venezuelan educational system has 11 grades: 6 primary, 3 junior high, and 2 high school. The three divisions have different colored shirts in a uniform that is mandatory nationwide: white, then light blue, and finally, beige. My mom loved it. Hand-me-downs were easy, we seldom had to buy new clothes, and most importantly, we never bugged her about what we should wear.

Before getting to high school, you had to have a rough idea of what you wanted to do in university/college. High school had two streams: humanities/arts and sciences. Most people just took the sciences stream and it was the default stream, but there was always a handful of students who were certain enough about their future path that they'd select humanities. That part was easy for me. I knew it wasn't humanities/arts, so I fell into sciences by default.

I had wanted to become a teacher, but due to the broken education system, many of my teachers actually discouraged me from pursuing this career path. So in 8th grade, with the looming deadline of changing from a blue to beige shirt, I decided that too many of my teachers had advised me against a career in education and perhaps I should start looking elsewhere.

Enter Jurassic Park. I know... It sounds cheesy. But I loved that movie!! And more importantly, it left me wondering how much of the movie was possible. The movie also coincided with increasingly frequent publications in National Geographic on genetics and its potential, and my uncle had bought my family a subscription to the magazine. So I read everything I could get my hands on. Then I read Jurassic Park, the book, and I thought that I had found my "thing".

A few years later, once I was wearing my beige shirt, my plans suddenly shifted. I was a pretty good student in high school and our school participated in the science Olympics: these were a series of exams in math, chemistry, and physics for students 9-11th grade. They were sponsored by PDVSA, the national oil company. They were very prestigious, although I don't know if they still have them. In 10th grade, my best friend and I qualified to represent our state in the chemistry Olympics.  Our teachers did their best to help us prep for the wet lab test which was held in the country's capital (Caracas). We did our best, we both thought we did poorly, and then we came home. About a month later, I found out that I came in the top 10 nationwide, and was invited to the award and scholarship ceremony. The rankings, other than gold, silver, and bronze, were never announced for the remaining seven finalists. It was a trip of a lifetime: I got to stay in a fancy hotel with a bunch of brilliant kids and had loads of fun.

The scholarships were no laughing matter. As you can imagine, PDVSA made a very strategic decision to sponsor a nationwide contest to identify smart kids who they could invest in and develop to become great employees. There were representatives from all the divisions of PDVSA who took us on tours and whose scholarships were the complete package. So naturally, all of this made me decide to follow a career in the oil industry. Venezuela's programs were very well-known and respected at the time, so it seemed like the logical thing to do.

Right before my scholarship interview, the program's manager pulled me aside to let me know that unfortunately, since I was born in Canada and was only a permanent resident, I didn't qualify. That whole scene is a big blur. I remember crying. I remember some of my new friends trying to console me. Others said that they remembered an announcement about this when they had taken their state-level tests, but it was never announced at the location I had taken my exam. I left pretty devastated.

Very soon after, I started looking into how to become a citizen, but the amount of bureaucratic tape was so thick that I quickly gave up and became fairly bitter against the whole idea. A month or so after, I received a phone call asking me to represent Venezuela in the international chemistry Olympics, which were to be held in Russia or Argentina (I can't remember...). I reminded the organizers that I wasn't a citizen, thanked them for their consideration, and then I hung up.

My parents had always given me and my siblings the choice of staying in Venezuela for university or returning to Canada where we were born. Given the events, I decided before I entered my final year of high school, that I'd be the first of my siblings to go back. I definitively decided on a career in genetic engineering: a field where there was no possibility of me staying.

The following year, I passed the first round of the chemistry Olympics again, but made no attempt to progress to States or Nationals. Instead, I packed my bags and moved. I vividly remember that while I was packing, my dad entered my room and asked me what I was doing. When I told him that I was moving to Canada, he said "No, you're not." I told him that I was. He said that he was going to go talk to my mom. He went downstairs. After a long period of time, my mom came upstairs and started to help me pack.

She had a very frank conversation with me, and as a 16 year old, I'm surprised I understood the gravity of what she said. She explained that, due to exchange rates and differences in income, my parents would not be able to support me financially. She said that if I wanted to go, they wouldn't be able to help me pay for college, other than the education savings bonds they had purchased for us when we were kids.

I lived with my aunt and uncle on a sheep and emu farm in a Canadian town whose entire population was about the size of my school in Venezuela: 1400 people. It goes without saying that it was a rough transition, but living out in the boonies had the benefit that with no cable TV and nowhere to go, there was nothing much to do other than study. So I did. When I applied for schools, I didn't visit them. I based my decision exclusively on scholarship criteria and a strong genetics program. And so, after several interviews, I was admitted on a full scholarship to Western U.

When I visited Western for my pre-orientation along with hundreds of other kids, each one of us sat down with a professor to give us a few minutes of career guidance and to help us decide on our first courses. In one of the luckiest breaks in my life, the professor I sat down with was from the biochemistry department and did fruit fly genetics research. After pulling up my file and speaking with me, he gave me his card and told me to email him once the school year started to see if there was a job for me in his lab. And so, I did.

When I wrote to him, he invited me to his lab, showed me around and asked me what type of research I was interested in doing some day. Keep in mind that I was just a freshman. This awesome professor, Dr Gregory Gloor, was doing all this for a puny freshman. Anyway, I told him that I was more interested in mammalian genetics. So, we went for a walk through the department. He introduced me to different people who told me about their research. And finally, I hit the jackpot: I found a lab that was willing to take me on as a volunteer that did research on muscle development in stem cells. I started out just racking tips and making solutions. With time, I started doing experiments. In my 2nd year, I started cloning and isolating DNA. By my 3rd year, I was taking care of cell lines for the grad students and technicians. By my 4th year, I had my own small project. And I loved it all. So going into grad school to pursue a PhD was a no-brainer.

Well folks, that's the story of how BioChica became a scientist :) I'll leave the tale of grad school and my thesis for another day. Have a great weekend!

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