There were 9 recruits to the Animal Biology program, and I was among the youngest of the group. Most had worked for a few years after obtaining their undergrads, so I felt a little inexperienced. The atmosphere, however, is a lot more laid back than I had anticipated for a PhD program, and all the grad students and professors were very easy to talk to once the initial nervousness wore off. The nervousness came back when I learned that four recruits, including myself, were applying for two positions in the Cheng-Devries lab. Besides myself there was Garren, a 30 year old fully bearded biologist from somewhere out east, James, an incredibly nice and intelligent post-grad from the Chicago area, and some genious Chinese student that wasn't there that weekend. Furthermore, the Chinese student, if he/she decides to accept, is guaranteed the position. So, between Garren, James, and I there was one spot, and I was the youngest, most inexperienced of the group. Talk about nervous nelly butterflies...but I grew up in a family with eight kids, I'm used to fighting for a spot at the trough (or a nipple, you get the point). Afterall, I was able to relax and talk shop with Chris and the grad students, who are all serious about the science yet easy going...my kind of people.
In between interviews on Friday James, Garren, and I had lunch with Chris and her grad students, and at night everyone was invited to dinner and a party with all the faculty and grad students at one of the professors' house. They had awesome food and coolers full of good beer, plus for the first time in my life I was able to talk biology with people who cared and understood it. Most of my roomates at Iowa State were mechanical engineers; my biology was as much of a foreign language to them as their engineering was to me. I am excited for grad school because I won't have to hold back anything intellectually. Saturday the grad students hosted a symposium, a string of short presentations on their current research.
The presentations were great, but 16 in a row started to get tedious. After the symposium the department hosted a reception with wine, beer, fruit, cheese, and crackers and inside a tropical greenhouse. I stood discussing biology and housing in Urbana while surrounded by vines and banana trees. Saturday night all of the recruits were invited to a house party at one of the grad students' place...professors weren't allowed. I remember holding one of Garren's legs while he did a keg stand (right after I went 29 seconds). The grad students living in the house had set up a microbrewery and offered me some of their product when I inquired. We got to talking, and if I decide to attend U of I, I am invited to join the homebrew crew.
Sunday before returning to Seattle Chris invited me, along with Garren, to spend more time in the lab, viewing specimens and answering more grad school questions. I was still worried about the competition between the three of us for one spot in the lab, especially considering how knowledgeable and outgoing the other two are. I was the last person Chris dropped off on Sunday, and, as we were saying our goodbyes at the airport, she said something I totally didn't expect. "You know there are three of you interested in our lab and that we only have room for one of you right?"
Here it comes, I thought. Every interview I've ever had for a job has ended this way. Both Red Bull and Sobe, after getting me excited about student brand manager positions, have dropped this bombshell. 'You're a great candidate and an awesome guy' they would say, 'but we're going with someone else'. I've learned not to get my hopes up anymore. I stay confident in my abilities, of course, but if I don't expect anything I can't be disappointed.
Chris, to my surprise, looked me straight in the eye and said "you are our top choice. Art likes you, I like you, my grad students like you...the spot is yours if you want it". In my head I was screaming at the top of my lungs and firing twin pistols into the air. On the outside I kept my composure and explained to Chris that I really like what they're doing and I really like U of I and it is my top choice, but I would wait until I visited Northeastern to make my decision. I flew back to Seattle with a big smile on my face.
While we were skiing at Snowbird I received an email from the U of I, one of the four grad schools I had applied to, that invited me to the Graduate Recruitment Weekend in Urbana. Pete was a little sad that I wasn't going to be in Seattle to hang out with him, but I couldn't pass up this chance, especially since they were paying the airfare, hotel, and food. I flew out on a Thursday and spent all day Friday interviewing with professors and hanging out with grad students. Drs. Chris Cheng and Art Devries, the professors I'm interested in, research Antarctic fish biology, particularly the function and evolutionary derivation of antifreeze glycoproteins (AFGPs). AFGPs are the reason fish can survive in Antarctic water below the point at which normal marine fish would freeze solid (-2 C). The antifreeze molecules adhere to ice crystals and prevent them from growing, thereby allowing the fish to safely swallow sea water that is full of ice. We know sort of where they come from and sort of how they work, but the field is so open to research and so fascinating to me that I sought out the leaders in the field to learn everything they know.