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UCSF neuroscientist, Wendy Xin, on the role of social media in science

Wendy Xin: UC San Francisco Neuroscientist

Nick and our next guest go way back! Wendy Xin currently works as a postdoc at UC San Francisco, but she first met Nick during grad school at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After spending arguably (hopefully!) the hardest years of their careers together, the two friends reconnect to discuss how life has changed since grad school and what they have learned about climbing the scientific ladder over the course of their respective journeys.

Becoming Dr. Oligo

If one thing is clear from Wendy’s interview, it’s that she loves studying glia — specifically, oligodendrocytes. For a long time the role of glial cells in the nervous system went underappreciated; when Wendy started her PhD at Johns Hopkins, she felt that she had stumbled into the “wild west” of neuroscience when she could barely find any existing literature to support her research. Though the importance of glia to healthy brain function is now plainly evident, choosing a relatively nascent field of study was certainly an added challenge on the road to a PhD. 

“I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend graduate students to pursue that path,” Wendy explains. To some extent, she feels like she missed out on a time in her career when she could have pursued hypothesis-driven experiments with strong roots in established concepts, which would have allowed her to benefit more from senior mentors who could critique her thought process based on the precedents of published work. But at the same time, she describes her PhD as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to really define herself as a scientist and even views the time she spent paving her way through the glial wilderness as a considerable advantage in her postdoc. Now that she works in an environment that “celebrates glia on a daily basis,” her hard-earned knowledge of glial biology gives her a leg up starting new projects that she would not have if she had studied more well-charted territory as a grad student.

Making the Most of Good Opportunities

Listening to Wendy discuss her research so passionately and confidently may give you the impression that she had her heart set on this career from an early age, but like so many others this is not the case at all. The daughter of a scientist herself, Wendy was not exactly eager to delve into the subject that her dad was nerding out about. She went to college with the intention to major in political science or economics, but realized that she just didn’t have the same level of interest in the classes as her peers. 

Wendy’s love for science really emerged following an intro psychology class, which opened the intellectual floodgates to biological psychology and ultimately neuroscience. It can be tempting for junior scientists to look at their mentors and think they’ve always had it figured out, but Wendy feels it’s important to emphasize the more serendipitous parts of the journey — like a chance encounter or a great class — to send the right message to early career scientists. Even the most accomplished of your idols likely had some luck along the way, and it doesn’t detract from success to admit that. As Wendy puts it, “whatever luck that you do get, you still need to make the most out of it that you possibly can.”

Fortunately, the scientific community is literally at our fingertips these days, which makes it all that much easier to meet the right people or be in the right place at the right time. “Being on Twitter is kind of like being at a conference whenever you want to be,” Wendy explains. And she’s right — from your academic idols to the journal you dream about publishing in, you can find them in the sciencey corners of Twitter and interact with them directly. Social media could be a game changer for scientific institutions everywhere, as it levels the playing field somewhat by letting everyone have access to ongoing scientific conversations. It’s even starting to change the peer review process, as open access preprints circulate through the Twitterverse and generate huge threads full of feedback — all before the paper has touched an official reviewer’s desk. 

Whatever luck that you do get, you still need to make the most out of it that you possibly can.

Wendy Xin

Oh, and speaking of Twitter: you should follow Wendy @Dr_Oligo now! 

Wendy’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.

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