– Laura Kervezee, PhD –
One day, as an undergraduate student, I decided to stop using an alarm clock to get out of bed. Being a morning person, I realized that I usually woke up before the alarm but let myself fall asleep again, only to be grumpy and annoyed when it went off a few minutes later. I simply refused to have my life dictated by a stupid electrical device and since then, I have not used an alarm clock to wake up in the morning.
It is also here that my story in science starts. My curiosity was sparked and I wondered: how do our bodies keep track of time? Is there some kind of clock mechanism inside us? Why is it easy for some people to wake up in the morning, while others struggle every morning to show up at work on time? Having just started my undergraduate studies, I was in the right place to explore these questions. Initially, I had planned to major in a strange combination of philosophy, linguistics, and mathematics, but attending a liberal arts and science college meant that I had the freedom to change my mind and follow biomedical and neuroscience courses instead.
I soon found out about a biological phenomenon called the circadian clock, which ensures that much of our physiology and behaviour is adapted to the 24-hour light-dark cycle in our environment. I learnt that if you locked yourself up in a basement or a cave in which it is impossible to know the time of day, you would still go to bed approximately every 24 hours and many processes in your body, such as your heart rate, metabolism, and hormone production, would continue to vary over the course of the day and night. I read about a tiny brain region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that synchronizes all these physiological rhythms with the outside world. My fascination grew even more when I learnt that virtually every cell in the body is able to keep track of time through a sophisticated feedback loop of genes and molecules that activate and suppress themselves at specific times of the day.
Captivated by the notion that the molecules and cells inside us (and inside virtually every other organism) are able to tell time and thereby profoundly influence our behaviour, our physiology, and our health, I took every opportunity to learn more about the circadian clock. Over the years, my friends started rolling their eyes whenever I tried to convince them to focus on whatever aspect of the circadian system for our group assignment. Fellow students audibly sighed when I gave a presentation in class on yet another circadian-related topic. However, I had a lot of fun with my new obsession. I wrote a mock research proposal about detecting activity in the SCN using fMRI for a neuroscience class, handed in an essay on the adaptive advantages of having a circadian clock for an evolutionary biology class, investigated clock gene rhythms in adipose tissue for my eight-week laboratory experience, and finished my undergraduate degree with a 50-page literature review on circadian rhythms in health and disease. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree, it was clear to me: I wanted to actively contribute to this research field.
Up to that point, I had never imagined myself as a scientist. Besides a few of my teachers, I didn’t know any scientists; I didn’t even know what a PhD was. To be honest, I had no clue what I was getting into. However, the same stubbornness that had made me throw the alarm clock out of the window a few years earlier also led me to pursue my curiosity and venture further into the world of science. Fast-forward seven years and I am now a postdoctoral researcher studying the consequences of disrupted circadian rhythms on health in night shift work, having finished my PhD on circadian rhythms in the exposure and effect of drug treatments last year.
That is not to say the path to where I am now has been as straight as it may sound. Before, there were moments where I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. It was frustrating. However, knowing too well what I wanted was a challenge as well. When I started looking for a PhD position, I asked myself: what project would allow me to chase my scientific dreams, and where should I even begin searching? I applied for many projects, was rejected a few times, but also declined a few offers myself, all the while believing – perhaps naively – that I would recognize the perfect opportunity when (if) it came along. I persisted and eventually something did come along. But it took some time. History repeated itself when I started looking for a postdoc position. Again, I gave myself time, kept breathing (and working), and ignored people that suggested I should consider alternative career paths. So far, things have worked out.
Over the years, I stayed within the same (small) research field for which my interest arose so spontaneously during my undergraduate program. However, this meant that geographically speaking, I did not remain in one place: over the course of my studies I have lived in four different countries on three different continents. For my latest adventure, I moved to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, enthusiastically joined by my significant other (lucky me!). Moving to new places is nothing special in academia and – to me – even forms one of the advantages that come with a career in science. However, people outside academia don’t always understand why science can be a reason to leave behind your calm and secure life, and certainly it is not a choice that everybody is willing to make. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I don’t expect the journey ahead to be easy. It does not need to be. I am hopeful that the scientific passion that was ignited in me by the alarm clock all those years ago will be there to keep me going.
Cover photo provided by Laura Kervezee