Jun 19, 2020
*Content warning for: domestic abuse, death of a friend.*
Tessa Logan is a graduate student at Stanford, and it was a long road to get there. Logan has persisted despite pauses, restarts, and personal tragedy. Hear how she decided to be like Dory and just keep swimming. To learn more about Tessa Logan find her on Twitter at @tessalationl.
Dr. Kate Clancy (Intro): Okay this is Kate Clancy and welcome to… uh. Oh wow! I was about to say Period Podcast. This is not Period Podcast this is the Courageous Scientist Podcast. (Laughs) This is what happens when you make the mistake of having two podcasts.
Clancy (cont.): Today, I am doing my pandemic-only passion project/ interview and I am really pleased, today to have Tessa Logan with me. She is a graduate student in the Stanford Neuroscience Program. And Tessa is going to be, like all of our previous guests, asking three basic, but I think very important questions: what brought you to science, how have you showed courage in science, and what would you like others to know about being a courageous scientist? So thank you so much for joining me today Tessa.
Tessa Logan: You’re welcome. I’m excited about it.
Clancy: Yeah. So why don’t you tell us: what brought you to science?
Logan: So, there’s one piece of it that’s sort of, um… I have always liked science. My mom, sort of, jokes that I never outgrew the ‘why’ stage that two-year-olds start and that not entirely inaccurate. That’s a big part of why I really love science is I really like understanding how things work and why it is they happen and why does… you know? What causes it and that sort of thing. So there’s sort of that basic element of, I think it’s just a fundamental part of who I am as a person. I don’t think there’s any way to separate me from my love of science like you couldn’t possibly understand me as a person without that piece.
More concretely, what brought me into science was what I am doing now, that I was very fortunate and got into an amazing lab in my undergrad at San Jose State with Rachel French and that was just such a fabulous experience. To go on a short tangent, she is an amazing PI and like a really fabulous mentor and she was really deeply invested in training us as scientists and I had no idea how luck I was, at least, not initially at getting into her lab.
I happened to be looking into joining a lab at the same time that she was staring one up. She was friends with the professor who was teaching my genetics course and I had done well in the genetics course so she, sort of, recommended me. And so I feel like, while I did work hard in the genetics class, and I worked hard in my academics up until then there was also a very large chunk of luck in ending up doing hands on research in biology. And so my undergrad lab, we worked on modeling fetal alcohol syndrome in fruit flies so I got to do a lot of developmental biology and molecular biology. Learn how fly genetics works and a bunch of stuff along those lines. And I really really loved it. I loved every part of it. I had a project wher we were testing some things and we got sort of this set of conflicting results, you know upregulating in a pathway resulted in one thing and we expected downregulating in a pathway to result in the opposite but it didn’t. So then we ended up with this whole thing where it was just like… ‘Whoa. Wait. What just happened?’ And I was shocked with how much I loved the bafflement in trying to figure out how things work because that was not what I predicted and the, ‘Why is it not what I predicted? How do I explain what I actually saw?’, was so exciting. It was so fun.
And Rachel encouraged me, very heavily to apply to grad school. I was, you know, really hedging my bets. I had started at a community college. And then I transferred to San Jose State, (Insert name) was, by the way, amazing and I loved it. Transferred to San Jose and definitely was not thinking about applying to Stanford. When I started looking at grad programs, I had some geographical constraints. I needed to stay basically, in the Bay Area here in California. I was planning on applying to some other places and I really felt like Stanford was way out my league, given where I was coming from. Turns out, it wasn’t and I was really glad to have been encouraged to apply. It’s been a really amazing fit and it’s been a really awesome experience being here. It’s been a really bumpy road here but that has less to do with the school and more to do with my personal life going sideways.
So I definitely have had the chance to pursue different kinds of work. I started out after my rotations, I initially joined another lab, also a fly lab. And then I needed to take a leave of absence. A lot of factors went into that. One of them, quite frankly, realizing I was in an abusive marriage and trying to see if there was a way to resolve that. And it was, at that point, it had been more than a decade that we’d been married. Actually, trying to fix it made it dramatically worse, but also made it clear that is was time to be done. So that’s what I did.
When I came back from my leave of absence, I also started in a new lab with a new project. Shifting with, now working on C. Elegans and I am on this project called, ‘Neuroplant’ which is really cool and I am really excited about it. And I think this was a really rambly response of how I got into science but it is also, kind of where I am now.
Clancy: I think it’s a great answer. And I think that Stanford is very lucky to have you. I was really struck by and pleased to hear you saying about what happens when you get results you don’t expect. That is one of my favorite parts of science and I am always just so tickled when people are like, ‘But it didn’t do what I thought it would do?? I don’t know what that means??’
Clancy: My students can vouch for how ridiculously animated I get when they bring me results and it’s like, ‘But I don’t know?’ and I’m like, ‘But it’s awesome!’ It’s the… it’s my yeah… It’s one of my favorite things in science, for sure. I’m wondering, and this may link to some of the things that we were just talking about or it may not, if you would just like to say a little bit about ways that you’ve had to show courage in science.
Logan: Honestly, coming back for my PhD has definitely been one of the really big pieces. It is something that I had to fight for, multiple levels actually, so I think one of the things that I had not mentioned is… (Laughs) after more than a decade of marriage and actively trying to have a child, and that had not happened, within about six months of starting grad school, I found, to my surprise that I was pregnant. And my kid is amazing, I adore him, he’s awesome. He’s now about five and a half. I… it sounds cheezy and cliché but he makes my whole world better (Laughs). Okay well let’s get teary about that. That’s alright.
Honestly, it kind of feels like my whole grad school trajectory has been something that has taken courage. So, after a decade of wanting a baby and not being able to have one, I was definitely never considering terminating the pregnancy regardless of the timing but six months into grad school is not when I would generally advise trying to have a newborn or to be pregnant and then have a newborn a year and some change into grad school because that was definitely not the easiest time to navigate that transition. So there was a little bit of a fight, not from like a logistics perspective but from a mental perspective to come back to school after having the baby and after, sort of, having to navigate all of the changes that that encompassed.
And after having my son was when I started to recognize some of the things that were really wrong in my marriage. And staring to see some of things that I might need to change in order to be comfortable raising a child in that household, and that was hard. Choosing to come to Stanford in the first place as a first generation college student, you know who sort of had come from the community college to the state college, don’t get me wrong because I loved San Jose State and it was an amazing experience and I got a stellar education there, but there’s this certain… reputation that a place like Stanford had and I was not feeling like I had met their… like I would meet their standards so coming here in the first place has been something that takes courage and coming back after maternity leave and then coming back a third time after I taking the leave of absence to file for divorce and get out of that household, all of those things took courage.
I also failed the first time I went to college so backtracking… a ridiculous amount of time ago, I initially tried to go to college right out of high school and I did not have the kind of support that I needed. I also, as a first-generation college student, I didn’t know what I needed to know. Like I didn’t even know what I didn’t know which was a hard place to be and to try and figure out how things work and I was accustomed to being a really stellar student in high school and, as I’ve mentioned, I am very fond of science. So what I had done in high school was every chance that I had I doubled up on every math and science classes and asked them to quit making me take the art classes because, ‘I have to label my stick figures and nobody knows what I’m trying to make anyways and it makes us all sad.’ (Laughs) So I loved that art existed, I love that there are people who can do it and I am not one of those people.
So my whole high school career I spent like arguing with people in charge about why they should just let me take the classes that I like and ignored the warnings that I was going to burn out because I was like… but you don’t understand, I like doing these things. This is fun. So I started college and I entirely disregarded the advice of my academic adviser. My very first semester was 18 units and I took molecular biology, chemistry, calculus, and… what was the… what was the fourth one? Physics? Something ridiculous.
Clancy: Yup. You were like a kid in a candy shop basically.
Logan: I was! (Laughs)
Clancy: I get to take all the science! (Laughs)
Logan: Exactly look at all the fun stuff I can take! My academic adviser was like, ‘I don’t think you understand. This is not a good plan, you’re going to burn out.’ And that’s exactly what I had been told in high school, ‘Oh you don’t understand, I’m used to this it’s fine.’ And she’s like, ‘It’s really not fine.’ And that I was… I was really persistent, and like I said, I was used to arguing with people about me taking the things that I like to take and, ‘Quit bugging me.’ So that’s what I did and, unsurprisingly, my first semester was not as successful as I would have liked.
So I went from having pulled straight A’s in high school to walking away with a 2.3 at the end of my first semester. Then my second semester I had a bunch of personal life things hit. One of them was a friend of mine died in this really absurd accident and basically, one of the contributing factors was them doing things that I would have told them to stop because I was the mother hen and I would have said, ‘This is stupid stop doing it. You’re going to get hurt.’ And I wasn’t there, I was supposed to be there that night and I carried the guilt of it along with the grief of it for a very long time. And at 19 I did not handle it well or responsibly. So I stopped going to classes entirely. I drank a lot. Which was not entirely ideal either. And absolutely failed everything. I literally failed my entire second semester which meant that I also lost all of my scholarship, which I had already been in danger of loosing because I had scholarships… presuming that I would continue to get straight As or something l near that.
So I failed out. My whole first year was basically just a waste. It felt like… so I went, I ended up moving 1800 miles from Colorado out to California. Started working at a hospital and finally after about five years there I started back to school at the community college. I think that piece, in of itself… it took a lot of courage. It was really hard to step back into a classroom after feeling like I was a complete failure as a student. That had been such a hard thing to deal with because… so much of my identity as a high school student or as a high schooler had been built around, you know, ‘I’m the good student. I’m the straight A student.’ It was a race to who would be the valedictorian and there were like three of us within like 0.005 GPA points of who would be the valedictorian and I did not win BUT… (Laughs)
Clancy: But I hear you.
Logan: That was who I was and then to turn around and walk away with actual Fs, was just… who was I if I wasn’t the good student? So walking back in after that was nerve wracking.
Clancy: Yeah. I could only imagine. I mean it sounds to me like really the biggest act of courage is you showing up with these different identities and these different experiences and I… I think sometimes, especially folks that have certain majority or privileged identities don’t realize how much courage it takes to just show up. And not just show up, to show up. You know what I mean? That’s a, that’s actually a really remarkable thing and that’s something that we should be just noticing more, within our colleagues and our students. That that itself it is actually... it demonstrates something pretty remarkable about your values and your work ethic as it does for anybody else who really decides to show up as there full self, unapologetic selves. You know?
Clancy: So I wonder, just as a final thought, if you could, maybe, answer the third question: what do you want other people to know about what it means to be a courageous scientist?
Logan: I think one of the things that I feel like was the most useful thing that I’ve gotten out of my experience isn’t something that I have, rather intentionally, brought to the classrooms where I’ve had the opportunity to teach is, fundamentally, persistence matters more than perfection. I’ve screwed up a whole bunch of times. But if I keep trying, eventually figure it out, then that matters more than all of the times where I was not perfect. And there was rather a lot of those. And that’s okay. That’s part of being a human and part of being a good scientist.
I think it’s also, at a very basic level, a part of learning to be a graduate student as well. Like that’s one of the things, talking with a lot of people in my cohort and talking with a lot of grad students on Twitter and around the world that that’s a thing that lots of use struggle with: what fundamentally a big part of being a grad student is you keep failing until you don’t. (Laughs) And that persistence, that thing where you keep going, the Dory, ‘Just keep on swimming thing right? That is fundamentally what it takes to be a good science. It’s not, ‘What did you know?’ It’s not, ‘Who did you know?’ It’s not, ‘Did you learn the right things at the right time?’ And I’m not denying that there aren’t opportunities that you can miss not knowing the right people or not knowing the right things at the right time. But that also doesn’t mean that that’s the end of that trajectory. Because I’m almost forty and I’m still not done with my PhD, it’s going to be a couple more years before I am. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a path that I should have taken. It just took me longer to get here and it took a lot more tries to get here. But I’m really glad I am where I am. I have such amazing opportunities and I have such amazing people around me. And the kind of life that I get to live and the kind of work that I’ve get to do is so worth it.
Clancy: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we can’t deny that there are people who have connections and support and stuff like that that give them more opportunities than other, but I think that you’re right. That there’s still something to be said for, ‘Persistence over perfection,’ by continuing to put in the time in order to get to do something that you love. I’m really glad you’re here. I’m really glad you’re a scientist and thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.
Logan: Thank you for having me I liked it.
Clancy (Outro): Thank you so much for joining me for the Period… (Laughs) Gosh wow! Second time in a row. Thank you so much for joining me for the Courageous Scientist Interview. For those of view who want to support courageous scientists, there is not financial way to support, you don’t need to do that anyway. Again, this is a hard scrabble, freebie of a podcast. But what you can do is tell educators and students about it because hopefully they will be as inspired as I am by people like Tessa Logan. And if you want to learn more about Tessa and the other courageous scientists that I’ve been interviewing, you can go to Courageous-Scientist.libsyn.com (L-I-B-Y-S-N). Thank you.