Meeting My Role Model Scientist

As a first-generation student, finding opportunity has been difficult. On top of that, I have really big dreams, so it becomes essential. Tenacity is my only chance. Let us never underestimate how much one person can influence an entire field.

As a young kid, I was inspired by a particular scientist in my field; she is known for her research in molecular neuropsychiatry. I’ve been reading her research for years, and back then it was a necessity for me because it’s often what kept me wanting to wake up the next day. I had a long abusive childhood and was denied so much opportunity, but I was determined to someday find my niche, and every time I read her works I felt like there was hope. Dr. Brennand was by far my greatest role model and favorite scientist.

Last November, I joined a virtual open house for the Yale Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program. This is a webinar for seniors or people in gap years applying to the graduate school for neuroscience. Of course, I was an undergraduate sophomore so I had no real place in being there, except I wanted to network and get to know my future. What can I say, I’ve always dreamed of being a Yale student.

In the webinar, they mentioned Dr. Kristen Brennand and her work, but she was absent. My automatic first thought was, The Kristen Brennand?! The one I’ve admired for so many years? The one who’s always so ahead?! Dr. Brennand has a tendency to publish well ahead of other scientists in her field. Read works of others in this area and they connect point A to point B or maybe even C, which is great and is new information, but when Dr. Brennand releases something she tends to connect everything through E or F. Honestly, it’s kind of scary to think where psychiatry would be if she wasn’t involved.

Anyway, I found out Dr. Brennand had moved her lab from New York to Yale, and it took me two months to gather the courage to email her. Should I express that I’m her biggest fan? No, I should wait. I had never been hesitant to seek an opportunity, so this feeling was a first. Through communicating with her, I obtained the opportunity to visit her lab over the summer, which honestly just made my world, but it marked a special place in my journey I’ll never forget and it’s what causes me to inspire others.

Prior to this internship, I was never a publicity person. I wanted my privacy. Upon receipt of the opportunity, everybody at my home university went crazy and celebrated along with me because no one from my school had ever received such a prestigious opportunity since the founding of my school in 1887. But I felt a feeling I had never felt before, that I never knew existed, that I can’t put into words… Imagine praying for something, hoping for it with all your heart for so many years, and all of a sudden everything you’ve ever asked for and dreamed of gets placed into the palm of your hand. This was how I felt, it was an amazing feeling, and what hit me was the realization that most people never even get to experience this feeling because they don’t dream big. Wow. Well this made me want to help others obtain that feeling even just once in their lives, so I put aside my selfish desires and decided I did want to start inspiring others.

At Yale over the summer, I cared more than anything about what Dr. Brennand thought of me. I had never been a people pleaser and usually am a very independent thinker, but what my idol concluded was very important to me. Dr. Brennand was the future me – hopefully! Honestly, if I become half the scientist Dr. Brennand is, I will be really impressed and will have lived the best life I could live.

My post-doctoral mentor brought it to my attention: I shouldn’t let myself be dictated by what one person thinks. He quickly saw my admiration for Dr. Brennand and determined that it might be a little unhealthy. My love for neuroscience really rose to the surface, though, so much that it caused me to change institutions and become a neuroscience student immediately.

In the Brennand lab the imposter syndrome for me was very real. I felt like I didn’t belong and like I had been given a favor due to being tenacious, or stubborn. The funny thing is that I went to Harvard afterward and never felt that way and wouldn’t have felt it in any other lab. It really was the fact that I was working under the scientist who brought me into science and whose work had inspired me for ten years to be what I want to be, and how was I to inform her of this without being weird? I asked her to sign her doctoral dissertation, which I had ordered a few years prior. I thought, Well, as great a scientist as she is, she was bound to have a rabid fan sooner or later at some point. Dr. Brennand is one of the most humble and down-to-earth people I know, especially to have accomplished all that she has, and it never phases her when she’s recognized and she gives credit to everyone else –  I mean, even in her dissertation she specifies that at one point she thought she wouldn’t complete grad school – but if she’s honest she can probably admit that it’s no surprise she has a fanbase.

I am at Harvard now in a neuroscience lab thanks to her recommendation as well as her advice for me to try something new: an animal model or a computational project. I value her advice greatly, so I took on both at once and am very thankful to be here at Harvard studying neuroscience.

The purpose of writing this experience is to speak to researchers and students alike. You never know whom you might inspire and what that person may accomplish, so when you teach and research, do it with a passion. Love what you do because you don’t know if the next Nobel Prize winner or face of the field might be your biggest fan.

Written by: Brianna Trippe; used with permission.

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CUR focuses on giving a voice to undergraduate research with learning through doing. It provides connections to a multitude of campuses and government agencies, all while promoting networking and professional growth to its community.