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Engineering as a Second Language

Ever feel out of place?

My name is Ayumi and I’m an ESL student. That is, engineering as a second language.

I completed my undergraduate degree in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona. The word ‘engineering’ used to scare me; it sounded like more math, coding, and fluid dynamics than I wanted. All I knew was that I loved biology and research. At the end of my sophomore year, I was accepted into the Environmental Health Sciences-Transformative Research Undergraduate Experience (Or, EHS-TRUE for short!). It provided me a paid, 2-year research opportunity in a lab related to environmental health science. My lab studied microglia, and my project involved quantifying microglia in a Parkinson’s disease model. I became enamored with my topic, and after my first year in research I knew enough to be thinking up ideas about future projects. I found that thrilling! By the end of year two, I could talk about my work in my sleep! I could only imagine where I would be if I had a few more years to study microglia. Research was all-consuming, but in a way that I loved.

I knew I wanted to go into a PhD program so I could keep learning and make a career in research. I wanted to understand a topic so well that I could easily think of new avenues to study. I didn’t choose a neuroscience PhD program because microglia--while fascinating--are not what I want to study most of all. My heart is with infectious disease research, and I wanted to pursue that in any way possible. So why didn’t I join a microbiology program? I strongly considered it, and I even applied to a few. I took microbiology classes and read books about disease for fun. But I increasingly found myself wanting to take all the theory I had learned over the course of my undergraduate career and apply it to build better platforms and technology. And the best programs for that were engineering-based.

Enter the Molecular Engineering (MolE) program at the University of Washington. It is a newer program, with the first round of students only recently starting to graduate. Through the National Name Exchange (which I would recommend you look into!), I learned about the opportunity to apply for early admission to the UW MolE PhD program. I wasn’t sure why I was getting information about an engineering program. I had set my research interests as biology-based. But the more I learned about the program, the more it sounded like a good fit. The program is incredibly interdisciplinary, and even students without an engineering background are encouraged to apply. I decided to go for it. What do I have to lose? Much to my surprise, I was accepted. I was flown out in October to meet with faculty for a few days and got my acceptance that same weekend. I couldn’t believe it! An engineering program wanted ME. Eventually, I accepted the offer, and found myself moving to Seattle the following August.

A Scientist and Engineer in Progress

But those feelings of disbelief did not go away. As classes began, I constantly found myself second-guessing my knowledge because I was surrounded by so many brilliant students--most of whom had engineering backgrounds. I didn’t know many of the terms that were thrown around by professors. They assumed we all knew, and I felt too embarrassed to ask them. By time midterms rolled around, I had gotten the worst grade in the history of my academic career. Most people in the class got bad exam scores. Logically, I knew that the average was low and final grades would be curved. But to me, it felt like another sign that I had chosen the wrong program--that I was too dumb for this school. Why, oh why, did I ever think I could be an engineer? I thought. It was a low point for me. I felt exhausted. Somehow, I gathered the energy to meet with professors, and stopped feeling so embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. I’m here to learn! They were excited to discuss concepts with me and by the end of the quarter, I was doing well in my classes.

Eventually, I reached out to some trusted people and told them how out of place I felt. They pointed out a few important things. First: failure is a part of being a scientist. Every scientist fails at some point and if I can’t handle that idea, I am in the wrong career regardless of the field. Failure is expected, and the best I can do is learn from it. Second: I am basically learning a new language. As an undergrad, my intro to Molecular and Cellular Biology professor, Dr. Jorstad, told us that an introductory science class often teaches more new words than an intro language class. I had learned how to speak molecular biology over the past 4 years, and now I am in a new environment, learning a new dialect of science. So I have cut myself some slack. The learning curve is steep, but each day I can see a little farther and know a little more than I did before. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to that little voice in my head that told me to quit when things got tough. I am starting to feel conversational in engineering!

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