Immunologist PhD student Mayowa sat outside on the beach

Interview: A Day in the Life of an Immunologist

This week on A Day in the Life, I interviewed Mayowa, an immunologist PhD student based in Washington, D.C., about how she got into immunology, what her day looks like in the lab, and how her journey was shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic.

First of all, tell us about yourself!

I’m a Nigerian American immunology PhD student with a million hobbies and crafty side projects. (I like to work with my hands, if anyone had clocked this sooner growing up I’d probably be an engineer ha!)

What first sparked your passion in science? 

A kind of self-centered curiosity paired with awe to be completely honest. In high school I loved Biology for how it helped explain the world, and hated Chemistry for how arbitrary and disconnected it felt. Not all science is equally captivating. Later as a Biology major in college, I realized that my curiosity for life didn’t extend far outside the ecosystem of my own body. Seminars on plants, and animals didn’t inspire awe like learning how neurons relay messages or how the heart beats to pump blood. 

How did you end up studying immunology?

I thought at first that I would go to medical school and be a doctor (both my parents are physicians), but when it came time to apply it just didn’t feel right. The thought of sinking so much time and money into something I wasn’t sure of yet terrified me more than anything. After college I worked as a research technician while I figured out my next steps. 

I went back to school for an MPH because it’s a flexible degree which could accommodate a range of careers revolving around human health. If I decided I wanted to do something different 5 years in, my training would give me options. I chose epidemiology because infectious diseases have shaped a lot of human history and understanding how diseases spread through populations is necessary for developing solutions and protecting vulnerable communities. Back then I really wanted to work on one of the top 3 global issues (HIV, TB, or malaria).

Immunology came by surprise though. In one of my infectious epidemiology courses for my MPH, we did a short unit on vaccines and the immune system and I was hooked. Vaccines literally changed the game and gave humans a fighting chance against these microbes that have plagued us since the beginning of time. The number of children who survive their first 5 years rose dramatically with the development of vaccines. Life expectancy increased hugely, and now communities in affluent nations are more concerned with chronic diseases and aging (heart disease, Alzheimer’s) than infectious diseases (measles, polio). 

I had no experience with immunology research, so I applied for a fellowship in an immunology lab at NIH to get some training and see how I’d like it – I loved it. and then went all in for a PhD.

The pandemic hit right in the middle of my studies, which was hard because I was just starting to get several research projects off the ground. Then quarantine shut down our lab for 5 months and limited our work for another 3. It was hard to stay motivated in 2020 especially because I had a degree in epidemiology and people were hiring epidemiologists left and right!

It was really cool to see the progression of the first COVID vaccines though. The timeline truly blew me away – those vaccines came to us at the speed of science; that is with funding fully secured, scientists were free to collaborate on the best solutions to meet the need and the government removed bureaucratic obstacles to regulatory approval to get it to people ASAP. It was a magical time in science for sure. 

It made me realize that so many problems could have been solved by now if wealthy nations cared to give the same level of funding/focus/expediency to other global issues affecting exploited countries…

“So many problems could have been solved by now if wealthy nations cared to give the same level of funding/focus/expediency to other global issues”

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What is the hardest thing about doing a PhD?

Staying focused and motivated. A PhD is an almost entirely self-motivated endeavor, and as I mentioned earlier, I have a million interests/hobbies outside of science, so there are always a number of creative projects or ideas that draw me away from my thesis work. On top of that, I often cope with my stress and anxiety or imposter syndrome with avoidance – in my PhD, this manifests as procrastination, which only results in more anxiety … rinse repeat.

Does being an immunologist affect you personally?

Studying anything intensely makes you see the world and yourself differently. For the few years that I worked in a microbiology lab, I learned a LOT about bacteria and viruses and with that knowledge, I became a low-key germaphobe. You just can’t unknow some things- like how your bath towels are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria because they regularly get damp (I still wash and dry my towels and sheets on high heat with some tea tree oil for disinfection).

With immunology and vaccines, the knowledge I gather helps me understand my body differently. I treat rest and take care of myself in different ways when I’m sick now compared to before I started studying (make sure to move and stretch and drink plenty of water even when you’re feeling lethargic and sick to keep things flowing in your immune system!) 

I remember when I was seeing friends and family debating on social media a few years ago whether they would get the new COVID vaccines, I felt the responsibility and weight of my understanding to help them make as informed a decision around vaccination as possible. There were too many black and brown people suffering across our country at the time to say nothing to the people I could easily reach.

Immunologist PhD student Mayowa sat outside with casual clothes and a sunhat

A Day in the Life of an Immunologist

I was always a night owl and therefore a late riser, but I recently moved to a second floor bedroom where the sun just pours in every morning, and being incredibly light sensitive, I find myself waking up soon after sunrise every day. I thought I would hate being a morning person, but I find that early hours are just as quiet as the late ones – they are good times to reflect or explore creative projects. The morning doesn’t feel as lonely either, because at least I can hear the birds outside.

My schedule as a student is flexible because I’ve completed my coursework (first 2 years of PhD) and I’m now just doing research and writing my thesis. This is both a blessing and a curse. The flexibility means that it’s dependent on me to establish a routine for myself. Some days I am better at this, and others… 

Most days I begin with quiet mornings around 7am (the sun is my alarm). If I am feeling centered, I usually make tea and sit in the living room or porch and listen to the birds while I make a To-Do list and set goals for the day. I’ll spend the rest of the morning working on fun projects (making earrings, redecorating our bathroom, fixing the deadbolt on our door, designing flyers for house concerts, pressing flowers, etc.)

I usually arrive at university around 11am. My day to day in the lab varies depending on what studies and experiments I have ongoing. I have several undergraduate students that I supervise and mentor as they work on projects related to my thesis. Sometimes this means I’m training them on new techniques or helping them troubleshoot a problem. Some days I’ll meet with my advisor to catch her up on my progress and get feedback or help with a problem.

Because I have an advisor who values rest for both herself and her students, my flexibility also means I have been able to save some money and travel at least once or twice a year during grad school. This has been an enormous blessing and helps replenish me to keep going. I’m a little nervous about how rest will look like if I’m working a more rigid schedule after graduation.

If I am not at my lab bench setting up assays or taking care of cell cultures, I am likely at my desk analyzing data and making sense of the results of my last experiment. Because I work with mice, I will stop in to the animal facility to check on them before the day is over. I enjoy the variety in my days at the lab. I think it would be hard work at a desk all day and appreciate that the work keeps me on my toes.

Because I choose to arrive later in the day, I often finish around 6-7pm, a few hours after most other students and faculty have left (4-5pm). I find that I am most productive in these last few hours without friends and coworkers to provide easy distractions – especially if my procrastination is raging. I try not to work at home at night if I can help it, so I can be present for the other parts of my life.

Most evenings I spend with my roommates or friends – dinner/conversations. Some nights I’ll go out dancing or take a dance class (I love salsa but lately I’ve been trying zouk and kizomba). I love live music and am constantly buying concert tickets so my evenings will sometimes end with a show. My roommates and I love hosting house concerts at our place, and that is really energizing for me – I love hosting and getting to host live music at my house is really special. I’m hoping to eventually host a few Latin social dance events at some point with a live salsa band – we’ll see haha. I love the possibility of creating community around shared loves. 

Can you tell us about the less glamorous side of being a scientist?

The least glamorous part of this process is that sometimes research is really frustrating. In a perfect world, you have an interesting question that you’re excited to answer for the world, you design an experiment to test your theory, collect your results and make your conclusions. Based on what you find, you might ask new questions or choose a different line of exploration or develop a fancy new tool to help the global community. This is the dream – science isn’t always sexy.

In reality, not all of your questions are so easily answered. You may be limited by the capacity of technology and science today (though lightyears beyond what we had even a few decades ago and always expanding). You might find that you don’t have a good model to study a disease or internal immune responses.

Or perhaps you have the tools you need, but the data make no sense to you (and the data doesn’t lie) – did you set up the assay incorrectly? Are your experimental controls correct? Is there some other confounding factor that you haven’t accounted for that is affecting the response you’re trying to isolate and study?

Or sometimes you get your answer and it’s not as exciting as you’d thought or doesn’t spark a new line of questions and you move on to something else.

Enjoying this series?

A few weeks ago I talked to MYNA, a UK-based DJ. She talks about her passion for afrobeat and how she has used her platform to reconnect with her musical roots.

Read it here: A Day in the Life of DJ MYNA

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt since you started studying immunology?

Overcoming imposter syndrome and realizing my worth. The working world values these three letters behind my name (PhD) more than it does my actual skills. Being fairly compensated for my work is part of the reason I am pursuing this degree. I could have kept my MPH and worked in immunology labs and gained all the same expertise I’ve acquired over the years, but without a doctorate level degree, my salary and opportunities would always be capped. Even if my hands-on experience overqualified me, I could be passed over for leadership positions and promotions in my field. 

This degree has really highlighted that for me because as a graduate student looking at job postings that almost directly mirror my qualifications and skills, it’s wild to see the difference in salary (sometimes 3-5 times my student stipend). The instant I graduate with a PhD, my value increases, even though I have had these same skills and expertise for the last few years.

I realize that the grad school model depends on me trading fair compensation for my work and skills in exchange for tuition and the opportunity to get this certification. It’s exploitative, especially if you have an advisor that is trying to keep you as a student longer than they should. Realizing this has been a major motivator for finishing up my degree. Thankfully my advisor has been wonderful and we get along great, but I am definitely looking forward to finally being paid what I’m worth.

How do you see epidemiology and immunology developing in the future as a result of the pandemic?

Well there was a period at the beginning of 2021 when the COVID vaccines were finally available and it seemed like suddenly everyone was an anti-vax critic. It made me question the value of an immunology degree in a society that didn’t believe in scientists enough to trust the technology. However, seeing the way those vaccines brought the global community through the last few years, it seems inevitable that we’ll be coming back to these tools to stay afloat in the race against infectious diseases. 

The best weapons we have against the microbes that plague humans have evolved in the extraordinary cells of our immune systems. When we equip and fortify that system, we reap the benefits of immunity during infection. Scientists aren’t inventing a new way when it comes to fighting infectious disease for a reason – why reinvent the wheel when you can take advantage of this existing biological foundation to make us better, faster, stronger? 

Is there anything else you want to share with us? 

If you’ve never considered the miracle of your mere existence, I highly recommend The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson. (he narrates the audiobook and it’s a delightful listen). You’ll never take your body for granted ever again.

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