Student Assistant, Joint BioEnergy Institute

Jonathan Woo graduated from the City College of San Francisco:  Bridges to Biosciences Program. He currently works as a Student Assistant at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Where did you attend college?

City College of San Francisco: Bridges to Biosciences
 

What degree/certificate(s)do you hold?

Biotechnology Lab Assistant 
 

What do you do for your job?

I assist my post-doctorate mentor in conducting lab techniques relevant to the current research projects.
 

What are some techniques that you commonly use?

I take care of work related to plasmid vector cloning, either in growing liquid cultures of E. coli, chemical shock cell transformation, electroporation, plasmid isolation, PCR, diagnostic gel electrophoresis, gel extraction, DNA purification, or preparing diluted PCR amplicon for sequence analysis. 

Later on during my internship, I was taught how to conduct plant genome isolation, involving homogenizing plant matter before conducting genomic DNA extraction and subsequent PCR, as well as taking on more duties overseeing the health of the modified plant in the various growth areas.

I was also allowed to conduct agroinfiltration, a transient assay involving the introduction of bacteria that would insert genetic information into leaves of tobacco.
 

Please describe what you do in an average day

I travel to the lab, leave my bag at my office desk and finish a cup of coffee from the cafeteria. I talk with my mentor for the day’s work, or she would’ve provided some instructions on our job list document or by email.  After working in the morning, I would break for lunch in the dining area, or leave the lab for a nearby restaurant, and then returning later to finish work. If need be, I would stay at the lab until the evening to complete a task.
 

What advice would you give someone who is interested in a biotech career?

I can’t give financial advice from my experiences, because I am from a middle class family who are financially supporting my academic pursuits, albeit just barely. Middle class doesn’t mean that we’re living in luxury. We still fear the future, and completing my secondary education is going to significantly hurt my family’s quality of life while I’m in university. No pressure! 

My perspective about the industry is also heavily limited by my plans for my career after earning my undergraduate degree. I have to finish graduate school with at least a Master’s degree to be accepted in a laboratory research position. I am committed to pursuing a Ph.D.  But I can give some advice for other aspects of the pursuit. I urge anybody listening or reading to do their own research and find their own answers, at least to make sure I’m not passing down misinformation.

Before making any extreme financial or time commitments, it’s important to determine as soon as possible what general position you want to have in the industry. Learning to become a researcher will have different educational requirements than learning to become a lab technician. I don’t know very many details on determining which job position has a better debt/education-to-salary ratio or which position is more stable or less. I personally have chosen to become a researcher out of damned foolish idealism, and have prepared myself to accept whatever consequences such a life may entail.

If you aren’t sure, that’s okay too. Talk to career counselors and professors for advice in the meanwhile, and stay at an educational institution that doesn’t deal serious damage to your financial stability, like a community college. 

If it is a struggle to stay financially stable, do what you have to do to maintain that stability and accrue at least less student debt. I’ve used the tuition prices at CCSF (City College of San Francisco) to its fullest potential. I’ve spent a lot more time here than some of my friends, and at the time of my transferring into a university, I can move immediately into upper division classes, cutting a significant amount of stress and fear from my quarterly course schedule. 

Community college is also a great way to contact people much more knowledgeable than a first-time lab assistant (me) and ask them the questions you have about career options in the industry, financial costs of secondary education, and ways of collecting money for future academic expenses. 

One thing I found a little surprising is the financial aid I qualify for. I successfully qualified for some federally-funded financial aid, despite my parents’ income. It wasn’t a large amount, and it shouldn’t be, but it was welcome financial relief nonetheless.

Scholarships are another good source of funds for school. There are websites online that aggregate scholarships under their qualifications, which are usually academic, ethnic, economic, or all three. CCSF also has a number of their own scholarships of their own that are great to apply to. 

Writing for scholarship applications also inoculates you against the sobering experience of writing cover letters and job applications and receiving those canned, impersonal message of rejection. In our global economic structure, no organization can just accept every application they receive, so emotionally preparing one’s self-confidence and sense of identity for these rejections is an important part in ultimately pursuing a career.

On the academic side, I would recommend pursuing academic knowledge with cautious tenacity. As mentioned before, do your best to maintain financial stability, and ask yourself deep questions as to what is attractive to you about the industry or the job position that you idolize or are eyeing. I can say that two qualities of my personality have led me to my current situation, financial support aside: my stubbornness to continue taking classes, and my willingness to confront my bad habits to start changing them. Any natural talent or intelligence I can claim to possess has long exhausted itself, probably during kindergarten.

If you fail one of your academic classes, it’s not a reflection of your strengths or weaknesses or inherent value as a human being. Otherwise, I’d be reduced to a talking pile of chopped liver and bad jokes. Failures and successes come from one’s personal understanding of academic material, and pace of internalizing new information, compared to pace of the class and often the additional demands of the instructing professor. Adapting to the rigors of the class requires confronting harmful habits, providing enough time for yourself to internalize new knowledge, maintaining a humane sleep schedule, and addressing any additional personal needs to achieve academic success.

One more suggestion: if you have thoughts after any sort of failure that are self-loathing or self-hating, that seem to last weeks and months after the initial event; if these negative thoughts are ever-echoing, always trying to shame you for your failure or mistake, make you hate yourself, feel ugly, or irredeemably inferior, or that you’ll never be smart or fast or charismatic enough to reach your future destination: please, please seek a professional therapist if you can. CCSF has available resources that can help connect you with someone who is professionally trained to provide empathy and who is aware of the emotional impact of living a lifetime under extreme stress, hatred, reality denial, or dismissal. You are not a failure. You are not inferior. You are not unlovable. You are in transit, in process of becoming someone different. The process works best with love of oneself and love of learning.

So, to recap: I can boil this long form into a few bullet points:
  • If you’re in a financially precarious position, be patient and gather as many funds from as many sources as possible, both from receiving money and from saving money: staying in community college, applying for scholarships, taking classes more slowly to better fit a job schedule.
  • Contact STEM and biotech advisors as often as possible, by email or appointment, about advice and perspective on your career and academic goals. Be personal and vulnerable about why you are attracted to the biotech industry. 
  • By the way: it’s okay to join an industry just to make money. Unless you poison several generations of an entire continent and the continent itself to make that profit, while hiring an army of lawyers and lobbyists to protect it.
  • When in school, your failures and successes reflect the time and energy you spend in the course, not your ultimate potential or ability. Both time and energy investment can be affected by internal and external challenges, and this does not make you more or less suited for the industry. 
  • Finally, accept and love your present self. If you feel disgust, fear, hatred, or emptiness by the mentioning of that idea, please: talk to a professional therapist. You body and your mind will be the only things that will be with you for the longest amount of time, more than anything else. Love them for that, if not anything else.
 
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Consider traveling to Europe for graduate school. I hear they don’t load their students with ruthless amounts of debt. It’s not worth staying in the U.S. if the rest of your life is doomed to grinding poverty, while some other place can offer similar academic and career opportunities with less grinding poverty. 
 
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