Robert Hsu | Mice, pipettes and the unknown


The Casual Observer | The summer after freshman year is a time of great growth


robert

Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Photo by Robert Hsu


I’ll never spend summer as a kid again. Those days are over — days I spent going to fun summer camps, staying up late to watch movies with friends, sleeping in every day and thinking about how far away “real life” was.

As exciting as college is, I’m stuck in that awkward place in between childhood and real life. It’s the time when you tell people who ask you about your future plans, “Oh, I want to go to medical school” or “I’m going to work in banking for a couple years and see what happens afterwards.”

This summer feels completely different compared to the ones before. I’m starting to prepare for real life — the 60-some years after I graduate. It was hard enough in high school when I thought about where I’d spend the next four years of my life. But trying to figure out the rest of my life is even more daunting.

Some people know what they want and know exactly how to achieve their goals. Others have no idea what they like or what they want to do. Many people, like me, are caught in the middle. I’ve found my passion in life, but I don’t know exactly what I want to do with it.

I’ve known since high school that my life passion was public health. In high school, though, I never found out whether I would actually enjoy research — certainly an important part of public health. In my mind, I had grown up thinking of research as being stuck in a windowless room, pipetting furiously and running mice around mazes. I also had never seriously considered the idea of pursuing a doctorate or even fully understood what grad students did with their time.

This summer, I decided to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Minority Research Program to try to explore future career possibilities and learn more about research. The program has given me the opportunity to assist a faculty mentor with research. In addition, I have heard various speakers talk about their experiences with health services research.

My experience so far has not only given me a better idea of what I want out of my future career, but it has also given me a new perspective on the unknown in life. I still don’t have all the answers, but this uncertainty in the game of life is what makes it so worthwhile and fulfilling. It is this brave journey into the unknown that gives us reason to keep waking up every day, learning more, asking questions and meeting new people. Although our end goals are invaluable, it is this rocky process in between the start and finish that is so memorable and powerful.

I’ve realized so much of life is plain trial and error. As all of our moms used to tell us when we refused to try new food: if you never try it, how will you know that you don’t like it? The same applies to life.

One speaker reminisced on the moment she realized that she didn’t want to attend medical school — when she didn’t enjoy organic chemistry at all.

Just like the speaker, I couldn’t rule out research without making the effort to understand it and perform it. If I end up hating it, that’s one more great thing I’ll have figured out about myself and life.

I used to be scared about time. One or two years seemed like an eternity to me. Taking a year off before graduate school was a year wasted. Taking an extra year or two beyond the minimum needed to complete a Ph.D. would only leave me behind. Many of the speakers taught me that a couple extra years here and there are nothing and that frequently, these extra years can direct us in the right direction. The immediate future may be daunting at times, but it is the unique combination of short-term events that form the unique long-term dreams that we all yearn to achieve some day.

Tomorrow is another day of research. I’m not pipetting or working with mice. I’ll be analyzing supermarket ads and customer receipts to analyze the effects of marketing interventions. Life is just like research — a never-ending cycle of constant learning, trial and error, work and more of the unknown.

Robert Hsu is a rising College and Wharton sophomore from Novi, Mich. His email address is rohsu@sas.upenn.edu. The Casual Observer appears every other week during the school year.

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