I put this blog on pause while I worked on my applications for grad school, but now I’m ready to begin chronicling my experiences in academia as I move closer to my degree. The application process was nerve-wracking but I ended up doing all right for myself. I submitted applications to 21 programs in psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience, and received invitations to interview at five schools, four of which extended invitations to me to join their program. All five programs I interviewed for were in psychology, except for one in cognitive science. I ended up accepting the invitation to join the PhD program in psychology at Johns Hopkins.
One of the most difficult requirements of any college application is the statement of purpose. I found a book called Graduate Admissions Essays, Fourth Edition: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice by Donald Asher, and it proved itself a great resource to me. It’s also inspired me to share my own essay in the hopes of helping others to form their own statements.
Some programs I applied to asked for a separate essay for the personal history and statement of purpose, but the essay below, which helped me into Hopkins, is a bit of a hybrid between the personal history and statement of purpose, as was required for the application. I wanted to use this essay to convey a sense of my personality so it waxes a bit poetic and cheesy at times, but I really wanted to make sure my application was at least noticed.
I can’t remember what first interested me in the study of memory. Instead I remember standing in my dress whites on the aft end of DDG-54, called the USS Curtis Wilbur, my home at the time and the fourth Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer based out of Yokosuka, Japan. I remember flashes of insight and epiphany that occurred during moments like these, and which, taken together, represent an intermittent series of growing curiosity which led me inevitably to the course of investigation I expect will consume the remainder of my life.
On this particular occasion, during this particular flash of insight, on the stern of my heavily armed abode, I remember leaning against the rails and gazing out past the churning screws that propelled our ship through the Pacific, past the frothy, chaotic waters they troubled, and out to the distant horizon, where I could yet see the long teal trail of our mighty ship’s path, and I remember wondering how it came to be that the water could “remember” our path for so long, and whether or not it were possible that other systems of memory could work in at all a similar fashion, whether even the nervous systems of vertebrates could be found to exhibit some similarities in function. I have yet to answer that question, as the detailed underpinnings of human memory remain of course an unlocked mystery, but I have not stopped asking.
The search for answers is the passion driving my life. The search is what led me to choose to return to school after the military; it’s what drove me to achieve an exemplary GPA, to garner awards like my university’s 2007 Psychology Department tuition stipend; it’s the fire that fueled me through over two years of weekends spent happily volunteering in research labs; and what impels me now to pursue graduate study and, when I’m ready, the latest questions facing the scientific community today.
Years ago, however, it was the dream of a life in Japan which I must confess informed my motivation to join the Navy. During high school I worked a part-time job and commuted to and from UC Los Angeles, where I studied Japanese language for three years. It was due to the extra credits from these extracurricular courses that I succeeded in obtaining my high school diploma a year ahead of schedule. I had originally planned to participate in a study abroad program in Japan during my senior year, my life’s dream at the time, but I despaired to find that I had failed to save enough money pay the cost of tuition.
Driven to succeed at any cost as always, I walked into my local recruitment center and, at 17 years of age, committed four years of my life to service. Life in Japan was indeed a dream; I saw my stuttering Japanese language skills flower into fluid and satisfying fluency, and my eyes were opened to the beauty of communication and the ability to represent in words things which my native tongue had no expression for. From the Japanese I learned there is more than one way: more than one way to communicate ideas, more than one way share feelings, or share a meal; more than one way to perceive color, to pursue ambitions, to interpret the world, to heal a society, to express a human life.
After leaving the military, I moved back home and soon found a full-time job waiting tables. While I got back on my feet I started taking courses at Orange Coast College and volunteering at the Blind Children’s Learning Center in Santa Ana, California. Many of the children at the center were not only blind or deaf, or blind and deaf, but autistic too. The burdens they carried were heavier than I could ever imagine, but they didn’t seem to know it. The classrooms were filled with the same racket of shouts and singing, crying and laughter you’d expect to find at any other school. The children I worked with are teens now; I hope they still feel the strength of spirit I remember them for, and I’m grateful to have had the lucky opportunity to learn from them at a time when I was in need of their inspiration.
Not long after, I left for school in Hawaii with some savings and little more than the clothes on my back. The cost of living was high on the islands; I worked full-time throughout my undergraduate experience and doing so cost me more in time than I earned in money. In spite of the struggle for cash and time, I achieved several honors and awards, including an invitation from the Mortar Board Honor Society and a Psychology Department Tuition Stipend for academic excellence, while successfully maintaining a relatively exemplary 3.77 GPA, with a 4.0 GPA in my major. It was there I forged my commitment to studying the brain, after taking a course in biopsychology my second year. I devoured the textbook for that class, but in the end was left wanting more―understanding then that I wanted to study memory at a much lower level than I had been so far, that I wanted to dive into a far deeper exploration of the brain’s physiology and function. Afterward I knew that I would need to pursue graduate studies if I wanted to satisfy my curiosity.
After graduation I wanted to find experience in my field and pay down some of the debt from my school loans, but I struggled to find any work. Thinking employment opportunities must be limited on such a small island, I moved to California in hopes of finding a position as a research assistant, but discovered that these jobs were few and relatively difficult to obtain anywhere. I felt confident that I could find one if I persevered, but I wondered how I would ever get to graduate school if I couldn’t find the experience I’d need to prepare myself. During this interim I paid the bills by working as a certified computer repair technician at the Genius Bar of an Apple Store, where I acquired an expert proficiency with computers and a finer appreciation for quality of presentation. Eventually, failing to obtain paid work in my field, I decided to reach out to professors whose work interested me and volunteer my time for free (Now I recognize how common this strategy is and can laugh about my naiveté then, but at the time I thought this was the height of creative ambition.)
Since then I have been gifted with powerfully instructive experiences, but I am most grateful for the trials and lessons of the events in my life that led me here. I have struggled financially to support myself through college, but this has taught me to appreciate the full value of an education, and to better recognize the far greater barriers that those much less fortunate have had to cross just to achieve the same accomplishments. The ship I served on in the Navy, the Curtis Wilbur, dropped anchor in places where people are lucky to live at all, let alone pursue their dreams. Taking the job as a Genius at Apple in lieu of a research position taught me to reign in my ambition and take a step back, to slow down and build a stronger foundation before moving on to loftier goals.
And the lessons continue. At present, fortune has made me an assistant at the Brisbane Library. My job is to create educational programming for children, teens and adults. I independently plan and execute science-related programming for teens at multiple libraries in San Mateo county. Throughout the course of these programs, I teach teens to solder and program electronics, conduct basic experiments in chemistry, physics and biology, and generate new ideas for future projects. Recently our teens soldered and assembled a neural signal amplifier from basic parts, and we used it to analyze action potentials of real neurons in live cockroaches and earthworms. Many of the teens in the program come from underprivileged homes, and haven’t had much experience with these kinds of activities. I delight in that priceless moment when they see their hard-wrought code successfully executed or their predictions experimentally validated. Sometimes, at the end of an experiment, when we’re tying up the ends of our investigation, that kid slacking off in the back will look up, eyes filled with epiphany, and ask a question so pertinent we end up designing a new round of experiments centered around it. The resultant glow on that kid’s face is an inspiring sight.
I can’t help but feel it’s our responsibility and our honor to lift up the people around us, to strive to bring light to the dark places. What better place to start than at the intersection of mind and body? There is no current science more riveting, more promising, than modern neuroscience. The hopelessly tangled complexity of an organ as vast and uncharted as the stars; the desperate morass of our still feeble collective understanding of its function; the frustratingly indecipherable, cryptic chatter of hundreds of billions of neurons endlessly slinging messages around our skulls; all of this serves only to excite and spur my fascination. This is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
What is more central to the human experience than memory? I first became aware that I wanted to study memory for life when I discovered Dr. Douglas Hofstadter, according to whom the entirety of human cognition is an emergent property owing its existence to this one evolutionarily favored trait. His book, Gödel, Escher, and Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, ignited a furious passion in me for exploring the convergence of mind and machine, and consequently my interest in the brain was coupled with a newfound interest in information processing and computational analysis. Later, my undergraduate education would introduce me to many great early investigations such as those led by famed Drs. Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, whose work on “split-brain” patients I admired for its insight and precise methodology, and which compounded my nascent interests with the intrigue of functional connectivity.
That interest in functional connectivity led me to the next stage of my development at the Lifespan Human Senses Lab at San Diego State University, where I experienced firsthand the nuts and bolts of daily work in science for the first time as a volunteer research assistant. This initial experience gave me a taste of basic methodology, experimental design and data analysis, and my technical skills were transformed by the extensive use of the command line, the Python programming language, and IBM SPSS statistics software. Under the mentorship of Dr. Claire Murphy, I worked independently to investigate the association between MRI measures of structural integrity and fMRI activation during olfactory recognition memory tasks. I sought to identify anatomical substrates explaining differences in fMRI activity and disrupted connectivity in older adult carriers of the ε4 allele of apolipoprotein E, a gene which previous studies have shown to be associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. We hypothesized that lower volumes and/or thinner entorhinal cortex (EC) would be associated with less activation in frontal and medial temporal lobe regions and specifically in anterior cingulate cortex during retrieval in the odor recognition memory task. We further hypothesized that these measures of EC integrity and the volume of the hippocampus would be associated with measures of functional connectivity, and specifically investigated whether EC or hippocampus contributed more to the functional connectivity efficiency. Results were presented in poster form at the Gerontological Society for America 2012 Annual Scientiﬁc Meeting. Concurrent with my independent study, I assisted with other studies conducted at the lab, where I had the opportunity to assist in performance of neuropsychological testing and fMRI scans of participants as part of an ongoing imaging study.
These days my interests have been heavily influenced by my experiences at the Gazzaley Lab at UC San Francisco, where I have spent over a year volunteering as a research assistant learning to appreciate the finer details of complex frequency analysis. Under the mentorship of Dr. Morgan Hough, I am working with a team at the Gazzaley Lab to study neuronal synchronization underlying selective attention in magnetoencephalography (MEG) recordings. I am also writing programs in Python using the MNE-Python MEG/EEG analysis suite and the R statistics programming language to analyze power spectral density in resting state MEG data.
I would like to continue exploring the neural characteristics of cognition, attention and memory, and doctoral study at the Johns Hopkins University would be an excellent opportunity to work directly with first-rate neuroimaging facilities and expert faculty. In fact, the combination of world class facilities with close contact with professors is what most attracts me to the program. My long-term goal is to help discover as-yet unrecognized methods of neural communication and encoding, and to interrogate neural activity to identify functional connections. My background and research plans are a close match with the work of… [and here are 100 words describing my possible match with three professors whose work seemed to align with my interests. This is the only part of the essay I didn’t feel like sharing.]
I have so much hard work ahead of me, but that’s what builds me up, makes me stronger. I have so much to learn too, but that’s the fun part, and I’m confident that there will be many capable friends and teachers to guide me through challenges along the way. I’m determined to see my education through and I’m ready to make a difference, great or small, in our collective understanding of our ourselves and our place in the world―and I’m excited to be there for every step of the journey.