A Day in the Life of a PhD Student - A Birth Defects Insights Blog

By Mona Dai, PhD Student Member Since 2018Mona Harvard Pic-Smaller.png

This blog is also published on Medium.com and LinkedIn.

Running. If I had to choose just one word to describe my experience pursuing my doctorate, I would choose “running”. Almost every day I’m running from classes to meetings to talks; I’ve never had a week exactly like the one before; that’s why one of my favorite things about student life is the variety.

Before becoming a graduate student, I worked as a research fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). During my EPA fellowship, I was inspired by the passion and dedication of each of my co-workers to truly serve the public and challenged myself to fill their shoes one day. I decided to pursue a doctorate degree with the intent to work on research that will support implementation of sound, scientific policy for public health. I hope to become an expert who can help advise and forward responsible policies. That’s why I’ve been so excited to have started my PhD journey.

Although my classes are mostly traditional lectures, most of my class sizes are small, with less than twelve students per class. As a result, questions are encouraged and more than once we have had so much back and forth between professor and students that we’ve had an extra class – dinner provided – to go over the material we weren’t able to cover during a normal session. Every week there are meetings for my lab group to talk about our projects, for my department to discuss general happenings and concerns, and presentations by rotating PhD students on whatever subject of their choice. We give updates on our individual projects and, if a conference is upcoming, listen to and critique fellow group members’ presentations. A number of presentations on non-scientific topics are also sprinkled throughout the semester. For instance, I’ve listened to my classmates lecture passionately about the epic of Gilgamesh and recommend which lesser known national parks deserve a visit. Usually these meetings are popular not only because of the free food (the best way to convince graduate students to do anything), but also because they are lighthearted meetings that help us practice our presentation skills.

Woven in the time between classes and meetings is when I complete most of my research. Since most of my lab group are computer modelers, you can often find us coding away on our computers using a variety of programs: R, Python, Matlab, or Fortran. We’ll be creating maps trying to identify how mercury travels across the globe or creating bioaccumulation models to understand how PFAS biomagnifies within food systems. I really appreciate modeling because I always feel a sense of achievement knowing that I can compare my model to real data to get an intuition of whether I’m coding in the right direction. It’s a great self-check before developing it further to be able to better manage the future. Since I often feel more productive working in a group setting so that we can bounce ideas off each other, we’ll usually work in spurts of a few hours and take periodic breaks to search for snacks.

I’m also extremely grateful for all the social events thrown to nudge graduate students out of their offices. Of course there is always an unending number of inspiring academic speakers giving lectures at the university at any time, but there are also countless opportunities to try something new on campus or to go out and see the city. One Friday afternoon I attended a fresco class at the art museum. Another time I explored the aquarium with my cohort. Yet another weekend I ventured up to New Hampshire for a getaway in the mountains. Our department also has weekly group meditations. I’m also excited for opportunities, such as the one provided through BDRP’s 2020 Howard Garrison Public Affairs Fellowship, to travel off campus and delve into the real policy world. Through the fellowship, I will be traveling to Washington DC to meet with members of Congress to advocate for sustained scientific research. I look forward to learning about and practicing how my voice as a scientist can be shared to promote these issues both now and in my future career.

The biggest problem a graduate student has is not that there is nothing to do – it is that there is too much! However, I think it’s a good problem to have, especially as my journey marches me closer towards my goal of serving the public.

About the Author

Mona Dai.pngMona Dai is currently a PhD student at Harvard University in environmental science and engineering working on global pollutants including perfluorinated compounds (PFAS). She previously worked as an ORISE Research Fellow hosted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in the Office of Children's Health Protection. Mona was a recipient of a Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention Student and Postdoctoral Travel Award for the 2018 Annual Meeting held in Clearwater, Florida, and the 2020 BDRP Howard Garrison Public Affairs Fellowship recipient. To learn about all of the current travel opportunities for students interested in attending the Annual Meeting, please visit https://www.birthdefectsresearch.org/meetings/2020/student-travel.asp

More about the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention (BDRP)

To understand and prevent birth defects and disorders of developmental and reproductive origin, BDRP promotes multi-disciplinary research and exchange of ideas; communicates information to health professionals, decision-makers, and the public; and provides education and training.

Scientists interested in or already involved in research related to topics mentioned in this blog are encouraged to join BDRP and attend the 60th Annual Meeting June 27 – July 1, 2020, the premier source for cutting-edge research and authoritative information related to birth defects and developmentally-mediated disorders. Our members include those specializing in cell and molecular biology, developmental biology and toxicology, reproduction and endocrinology, epidemiology, nutritional biochemistry, and genetics, as well as the clinical disciplines of prenatal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, neonatology, medical genetics, and teratogen risk counseling. In addition, BDRP publishes the scientific journal, Birth Defects Research. Learn more at http://www.birthdefectsresearch.org. Find BDRP on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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