A Dichotomous Situation

January 23, 2021

Michael Xiao

My experience in Cambridge has been a generally enriching one so far, despite the realities of the COVID-19 situation. Today, on a rare snowy day, I reflect back on my decision to come to Cambridge. In doing so, I came across a paragraph that I wrote in my application essay for the Churchill Scholarship regarding my first visit here over four years ago.

“From walking past the historic Eagle Pub where Francis Crick and James Watson disseminated the double-helical structure of DNA to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology where Venki Ramakrishnan discovered novel functions of the ribosome, I still reminisce about my trip to Cambridge three years ago. Brilliant scientists with unconventional ideas have been integral to shaping the University’s storied history. Cambridge develops successful intellectuals through an eclectic approach to science by encouraging collaborations across numerous fields.”

Today, I wonder whether I still believe everything that I wrote in this paragraph, or at least the tone of the statement. Sure, Cambridge is a vibrant academic community filled with individuals of diverse backgrounds and interests. Yet, simultaneously, I’ve realized that my perspectives as a student and researcher here vary quite drastically from the effervescent perspectives I had as a visitor. From the last few months here, I have gained an appreciation for both the positive and the negative aspects. On one hand, I am surprised by the wealth of resources, brilliant ideas, and facilities that scientists are exposed to on a daily basis here. On the other hand, I am slightly dismayed by the hierarchical dynamics, inefficient bureaucracies, and politics that are also prevalent.

Of course, many of these aspects are related to academia in general, rather than specific to one or more institutions. Yet, they nevertheless keep me rooted in reality and encourage me to realize that issues exist at any institution. As scientists, it is our duty to do everything we can to maintain a collegial and productive environment for ourselves and for others whenever possible. Sometimes, optimism in such a regard can be difficult; however, for instance, with the recently announced decision by the Medical Research Council to close the MRC Cancer Unit, which will result in the loss of many jobs and closure of multiple labs. Many are understandably frustrated by this decision, and I sympathize with their situations.

In times like these, I’ve also gained an appreciation for biomedical research back in the U.S., as well as confidence from a career standpoint in my decision to pursue an MD/PhD in New York. While far from perfect in other regards, I’ve realized that some of the issues that the department is currently facing would have been averted if the department was affiliated with an institution in the U.S.

On a more positive note, I remain grateful for the opportunity and convinced that there are ways in which I can make the most of my time here. I am especially inspired by the conversations with fellow postdocs and postgraduate students in my lab, which have been fulfilling both scientifically and personally. Lab meetings are lively, with many members of the lab contributing to the discussion with generous criticism and insightful questions. Additionally, I’ll have the chance to acquire a relatively advanced metabolomics skillset, which will be particularly helpful during my PhD.

From a social standpoint, the current lockdown, although necessary, has undoubtedly created a tough situation. Yet, there have also been a few high points. Since arriving in November, I have gone on cycle rides around the city. I have also been to several dinner events, where I have been fortunate to meet other students. Together with several other Churchill Scholars, I have also had the chance to cook and get food from various places. Azim and I explored several different colleges together and hosted a few events with other students throughout the holiday season.

Some pictures:

It snowed today. Reminds me of home (Utah).

The Cambridge Biomedical Campus (around where my lab is). A far cycle ride from Churchill College (almost 5 miles) every day. Many brand-new facilities with some cool perks for students (e.g. gym + pool access, cheap bike repair, haircut, free services, etc.) during non-COVID times.

Cambridge (around the city center).

London

Churchill War Rooms in London (event with other Churchill Scholars).

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