The goal of my doctoral research was to characterize and develop strategies to manage microbial communities in photobioreactor (PBR) cultures in order to improve biomass and biofuel yields. When I first started, my advisors and more experienced graduate students guided me and helped me to learn the techniques necessary to succeed. In fact, some of my first work was an extension of the work of former students. This was beneficial because it helped me build a solid foundation for my research early in my graduate career.
Graduate students have several checkpoints to complete before graduation. First among these is the comprehensive exam. After completing my comprehensive exam, I was more able to focus in on my own research and I quickly became enthralled in the work. The second checkpoint, the dissertation prospectus, was slightly more daunting. My prospectus was an outline of my dissertation and included preliminary results and future directions. Successful completion of the prospectus indicates that there is an end to the graduate madness, and that it may be near. I was fairly nervous for the comprehensive and prospectus exams, but came out of both (mostly) unscathed. After each checkpoint, I felt revitalized and had some new directions to pursue. This is a good opportunity to mention the benefit of committee meetings in general. I always left committee meetings with a greater understanding of my data and fresh perspective.
I attended several conferences during graduate school, which always provided me with an improved understanding of important concepts closely related to my work. After returning from a conference, I would have renewed ambitions and new perspective on my research. Aside from those benefits, conferences are fun and I enjoyed getting to travel to new places.
Amidst all of these events was the research itself. At the time, it seemed like the work would be never-ending. I did so many things throughout the years, I sometimes look back into my lab notebook and think, “I did all of that?” Of course, the research was my favorite part. Tinkering with and tailoring assays and experiments to test hypotheses and improve the performance of an engineered biological system was extremely rewarding in the personal and professional realms. As they say, “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Of course, nothing is as easy as I make it sound here. I hit so many walls during my time as a graduate student that I’m surprised my nose is still on the proper side of my face. Learning comes foremost from making mistakes, so I must have learned quite a bit and, if nothing else, I learned the value of perseverance and plasticity in the face of sub-optimal results.
When the day that my first article was accepted for publication finally came, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been quite so simultaneously relieved and excited. Sweet vindication was mine and I felt for the first time that I was a true contributing member of the scientific community. Finally came my dissertation defense; the ultimate culmination of all that I had done and achieved during graduate school, neatly wrapped up in an hour-long presentation and a tome of writing. After that came a long sigh of relief.
If my recount of my graduate experience seems a little blurred, this is only because that is how it appears in my mind. As I mentioned earlier, and as I look back upon my dissertation, I can’t help but think, “I really did all of that?” Some of it seems so far in the past it feels unlikely that it ever happened at all. Good thing I wrote it all down in my notebook. Now, as I look to the future, I find myself again wondering what the future holds in store. I certainly feel more educated than I did when I began, so it is exciting to think about how much more I can learn and achieve in the years to come.
I would like to conclude by acknowledging all of the people that helped me to get through my Ph.D. Foremost are my advisors: Dr. Bruce Rittmann and Dr. Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown. They provided input and guidance when I needed it, but also allowed me to pursue my own directions within the larger space of my research project. Second is the PBR team. Our meetings were always lively and I am proud to have been part of such a great group of researchers. Last, but certainly not least, are my family and friends. Without them, I surely would have lost my mind and I am grateful for their love and support throughout the years.