Honestly, it was quite a struggle

While Vaishnavi Siripurapu ’18 was in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, she had a rare opportunity: to be placed in a Duke University cell biology lab under the supervision of a mentor, where she helped to conduct academic research on zebrafish cells. That led this fall to a milestone few students can claim before graduate school: co-authoring a scientific article in an international peer-reviewed journal. Yet while sharing the news of the article’s publication on social media, Siripurapu chose to eschew a pose of effortless perfection in favor of frankness: Achieving this success, she admitted, had been a profound struggle. She has given permission for us to share this edited version of her reflection in hopes of encouraging other young scientists:

Being friends with a lot of science-minded people, I see this type of post quite frequently. Most of the time, the subject is a quick “Hey! Check this out,” or, “I’m so thankful to everyone who helped me get here!” followed by the link to the item. I would always think to myself, “Wow! This achievement must’ve been very simple for them to complete, since they’re not talking about their struggle or anything. Is something wrong with me for struggling with achieving this goal?” However, I’ve realized that something would be wrong with me for not struggling to achieve this goal.

I vividly remember my first day of research after I was placed in a lab at Duke University. I remember waiting outside the lab for a familiar face to walk by. I remember forgetting my lunch and sheepishly asking one of my graduate students to take me to the dining hall. I remember reading papers and feeling like I didn’t understand anything. I remember overwhelmingly feeling like I definitely didn’t belong. I would walk to the bus stop to get home at the end of my research hours, and members of my cohort who would walk with me would ask, “Oh, how was your research today?” When it was my turn, to my disappointment, I would say, “My model didn’t work,” or, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” or, “Maybe I’m just not cut out for scientific research.”

I also remember my last days of research. I remember walking in with hot chocolate for the lab — and spilling it on the floor. I remember almost killing multiple zebrafish, and failing more modeling experiments than I can count. But most of all, I remember feeling like I definitely belonged. As the days became shorter and colder, and then longer and warmer, and the walk to the bus became muscle memory, I would still say, “My model didn’t work,” but I’d add, “But I have a solid idea of how to build the next one!” or I’d say, “I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m excited to find out!” I also said, “Maybe, I’m cut out just for scientific research!” Remarkably, research has helped me to embrace the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty, the bittersweet taste of failure, and the tiring chase for knowledge.

When I was writing this post, I felt awkward. “Am I making a bigger deal out of this than it is? Do people even care? Should I even write this?” I’d ask myself. But soon I found myself remembering: This is a big deal to me. When I was born, my mother certainly didn’t think I would pursue scientific research. When I went to school in West Virginia, I certainly didn’t think I’d pursue scientific research, and even when I went to rural South Iredell High before I went to the School of Science and Math, I absolutely didn’t think that scientific research was even something I could pursue. To me, it’s incredible to see how far I’ve come and how many people have helped me get here. Science is what builds the world around us and how we understand everything in our universe, and I am so thankful I’ve been able to pursue knowledge in this way.

I want to thank with every fiber of my being all of the people who made this possible.

I want to show my deep gratitude to Dr. Sarah Shoemaker, the Director of Mentorship and Research at my high school, NCSSM. Thank you so much for the opportunity you gave me in accepting me for the mentorship program at Science and Math, even though I was underqualified and had no faith that I would be accepted. Thank you for believing in me when no one else did, even when I did not believe in myself. Thank you for letting me cry in your office and for all of your kind emails that I still have taped up on my wall. But mostly, thank you for helping me realize how talented I really am.

I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the lab of Duke Associate Prof. Michel Bagnat, which has been crucial to my formation not only as a scientific thinker, but as a young woman facing life and uncertainty. I am incredibly fortunate to have had the experience to work with all of these wonderful people.

For the short version: Today I’m incredibly honored to share with you the first ever scientific paper in which I’ve been published, in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B!