Friday, May 6, 2016

Francis Aguisanda's Celebration Speech

Good afternoon OSCAR family! It is always wonderful to be back on campus and see the incredible work that our undergraduates are doing here at Mason. When I was a freshman here at Mason many moons ago, my career trajectory was very different than what it is now. I was going to study biology, graduate, become a physician, and go on to run a very successful practice. I had life all figured out! So when I began to seek out research opportunities, it wasn’t because I wanted to become a scientist. It was because I thought it would help bring me closer towards my goal of pursuing medicine. I had absolutely no idea that pursuing undergraduate research would change my life.

Needless to say, when I started working in Dr. Daniel Cox’s lab at the Krasnow institute, I had no idea what I was doing. Dr. Cox studied neuron development in Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruitfly. Meanwhile, I had never taken a neuroscience course and I had only briefly encountered these fruit flies in my genetics class. But the research topic intrigued me and I was very eager to get started. At the Krasnow Institute, Dr. Cox studied how genetic factors allow neurons to properly form during development. This is extremely important, as most neurological diseases are associated with neurons that have been formed inappropriately – so if we have a better understanding of how they form in the first place, perhaps we will be able to make better conjectures as to what exactly went wrong.

I was extremely nervous to get started, but I quickly fell in love with my life in the lab. In fact, I loved it so much that I spent nearly three years working with my team at Krasnow. My time in the lab taught me a lot of important lessons about research. First and foremost, it taught me that research was hard. I remember many nights where I had to turn down hanging out with my friends, because I knew that my larvae were going to be at the perfect stage for experiments at 2am, so off to the lab I went. In fact, after a semester of research, I walked into Dr. Cox’s office and told him that I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I wasn’t sure that I could balance my life in the lab with my extracurriculars and with being a student. But with the encouragement of Dr. Cox and my friends, I persevered. Working the lab also taught me that research was not a 9-5 job. I never finished my experiments and “left” my research behind when I went home at night. When you are pursuing questions that genuinely excite you and give you a sense that what you are doing is important, the questions will stay with you all the time. You’ll think about them on the way to class, or when you’re grabbing lunch, or when you should be studying for an exam. These lessons fundamentally altered the way in which I approached problems, and is what eventually led to me deciding that I wanted to pursue a career in research.

For the past two years, I have been a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health, where I am discovering and developing new therapeutics for rare genetic disorders. And come this September, I will be pursuing my PhD in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University. I cannot overemphasize that none of this would have been possible without the strong foundation in research that I received here at Mason. The OSCAR program is truly phenomenal, and I am so glad to see that it is changing the lives of all of you, just like it did for me.

Before I go, I want to leave you all with two things to meditate on as you continue your scholarly pursuits, whether they be here at Mason or elsewhere. The first is that serendipity favors those who work the hardest. I am a firm believer in the notion that you don’t have to be born a genius to be a researcher. What you do have to do, as I’m sure you all have learned, is that you need to work your tail off. And the more you work your tail off, the more opportunities you will be giving to the universe to reveal its secrets to you. The last piece of advice comes from a graduate student I heard speak while on the grad school interview circuit this past year. She said that the key to her success was that none of her friends wanted to quit on the same day. The network you are building here at Mason is not just a collection of contacts and names – it’s a support system. Use it. 

Congratulations again on all of your success, and I think I speak for everyone in the Mason community when I say we are all very proud of you. Thank you.