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The Value of Asking Questions: An Interview with John Lin

By David Weafer

What does life in the lab look like? Where can research take me? These are questions that ran through John Lin’s mind before he came to the Forsyth Student Scholars program in 2018. John, a Boston Latin School alum from Allston, now attends Harvard University and is pursuing a career in medicine and research without looking back. A bright future lies ahead for John, but his vision for his future started to materialize when he began to ask questions in the labs at Forsyth.

Asking questions

John always enjoyed asking questions. When he was younger, he would ask questions just to figure out how things worked. John was interested in science, so naturally his questions were taken to a new level when he came to Forsyth in high school. “I learned that a lot of times science isn’t just doing the experiment itself, but also thinking: what could you do better?” Now his questions come to life in the lab, fully immersed in the research process. But he didn’t always know that research was the career path for him.

Day to day life in the lab

Without hands-on experience, it can be hard to tell if interest will translate to a career. John related to this struggle. “I came into this program not really knowing what research is like. What does a lab look like? What does the day-to-day look like in the lab?” Getting answers to questions like these is critical for any person exploring careers. The FSS program provided the answers John needed. “I feel like this program gave me firsthand exposure to what experiments look like. How do postdocs and grad students work in the lab? What kinds of questions do they ask? It gave me a solid foundation on how things worked, not just learning the protocols, but also understanding the biology behind it.”

The FSS program provided more insight than the experience of day-to-day life as a researcher. John felt himself beginning to learn how to think like a scientist. “It allowed me to develop a more independent mindset of how to think like a scientist. And that’s not an experience everyone gets in a program. So, I’m very grateful for the lab meetings, the weekly check ins, and the mentors in this program who took the time to sit down with me.”

Taking labs by storm

After finishing the FSS program, John confidently stepped into the research scene in college. Now in his Junior year at Harvard University, he is pursuing a degree in Human Development and Regenerative Biology as well as a minor in Global Health and Health Policy. Outside of the classroom John works on rare kidney diseases in the Greka Lab at the Broad Institute.

He is also part of the Amgen Scholars Program which allows him to design his own project. His project this summer focused on a specific rare kidney disease called uromodulin (UMOD) kidney disease. As always, behind each great research project is a great research question. Here is John’s: “Some people develop UMOD kidney disease way later than others. So, my question is: what’s regulating that?”

Looking ahead

John developed an appreciation for clinical work through his research experience. “I feel like bringing the clinical aspect into research really helps drive a lot of your questions and makes them relevant to the patient population that you’re working with.” With that in mind, he ultimately plans to apply to med school and is considering pursuing an MD/PhD program. This prospect excites John because he can “combine the academic research side of things, which gives you a lot of freedom in asking questions along with more social aspects like, working with patients and understanding their challenges and how research can best serve them.”

A future built on a solid foundation

The FSS program gave John many skills he needed to jump right into the deep end when he started college. In his first summer at Forsyth he worked with Dr. Andrew Collins and Dr. Pallavi Murugkar in the Dewhirst Lab. They developed a method to quantify an uncultivable bacteria. “I feel like it taught me how to think nontraditionally.”

The second summer he moved into the Pugach-Gordon Lab and worked on  understanding  tooth decay among the indigenous groups. Indigenous populations have a higher prevalence of cavities compared to non-indigenous populations, but some children have high amounts of the bacteria that causes cavities yet don’t end up developing cavities. The project explored the phenomenon by looking into another bacteria that seemed to counteract the cavity-causing bacteria’s effects.

John felt he took a step up this time. “I had the chance to design some of that protocol and do the experiments, which was very cool. I feel like that taught me to ask questions and design my own experiments, which has been one of my favorite parts of science.”

In his final summer at Forsyth, John continued to explore his question from the summer before. He looked to see if other bacteria could prevent cavities from being formed. Overall, John felt the independent research aspect was formative for his future. “Those are very formative experiences and allowed me to get an understanding of how these things work. And figuring out what experiments would be right for certain questions allowed me to think more independently and be able to ask my own questions and test my own hypotheses.”

John’s advice

With all the experience John gained in the past 5 years he has a good idea of what advice to give to high school students considering STEM careers. “I have two pieces of advice. One is to always ask questions and just be actively thinking about the information that you’re taking in.” John felt he gained a lot from just talking to the people around him when he was in the FSS program and in the lab he works in today. Even this past summer he adjusted his hypotheses when planning his project based on the conversations he had with another group working at the Broad Institute.

His second piece of advice encourages openness. “Be open minded with what you’re working with… Even though you expect to work in one field, cast a wide net when looking for research opportunities. If you are interested in cancer, you could be working with viruses or something like that. And there may be a cross connection between the two. There are a lot of connections in science, and I feel like it’s cool to expose yourself to different fields and different disciplines.”

No matter which direction he goes, we know the future is bright for John and we are sure he will ask many important questions in the years to come.

This interview was edited for clarity.

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