Published: June 5, 2020

Graycen Wheeler PortraitGraycen Wheeler is a 6th year graduate student in BCHM's Liu Lab. She was initially attracted to CU Biochem by the strong web presence and diversity of research in the department’s labs. During graduate recruitment, “the interview process wasn’t nearly as anxiety-inducing and I felt natural interacting with grad students and prospective advisors.” Graycen joined the department with good grades and plenty of undergraduate research experience, but a couple of challenges along the way quickly taught her that success would require new skills, a little luck, and a lot of persistence.

Finding a Home

For many grad students, the first year of grad school induced a crisis of identity; Graycen and her classmates rotated between labs while establishing professional relationships, brushing up on research skills, and preparing for her written exams, all while taking a rigorous course-load. “A lot of people say being in graduate school is a break from your real life—and it’s not. You have to constantly assess what you’re giving up to stay in school.” Compounding these stressors, at the end of her first year, Graycen received the disappointing news that her first choice for a permanent lab was no longer accepting graduate students. Furthermore, her written exams were scheduled a few short weeks after first-year students join their labs.

Graycen stuck with it, and after “wandering into a microscopy lab,” fell in love with systems biology: “I loved the huge tangled mess of cell-signaling. With microscopy, there’s also lots of programming and image analysis which is always a delight.” Graycen had completed her first two rotations based on her undergraduate experience with structural biology. The opportunity to moonlight in multiple labs with varying research focuses before making a choice was a major draw, even amongst related programs at CU, for Graycen, it paid off. In her new lab, Graycen felt “like a mad scientist from a cartoon looking over my microscope.” She also made new friends, including a lab mate that she now plays tabletop games with: “I found my roommate and some great friends through that game. That’s a great benefit of this program—close ties to other departments.”

Beyond the Bench

It was these friends that Graycen turned to for support when she learned that she had failed her written comp test: “I was playing in a departmental softball league, and we had a game the day I found out that I had failed.” Some of the faculty that had administered her exam were playing, and needless to say, it was the last place she wanted to be. After the game, Graycen decided to hang out with some teammates where she received kind and encouraging words from her peers. “Grad school is hard, no matter what program you choose. There will always be times that it sucks; it felt great to be surrounded by people who reminded me of that.”

Buff Talks LogoOver the intervening years, Graycen has added writer, producer, and podcast host to her CV thanks to her work with CU’s blog Science Buffs. Graycen writes for Science Buffs and is a co-host and co-producer for the Buffs Talk Science podcast: “Science Buffs wanted to start a highly produced podcast a la Radio Lab on NPR, but these would take 6+ months to produce without a big staff. We were working on an idea for a podcast that we could get out in a reasonable time frame.” Graycen takes full advantage of the format: “I get to say, ‘asking on behalf of the non-scientist’ and pretend you’re asking for the regular listeners out there. The podcast is a great chance to talk to people I’d normally be intimidated by in a more informal setting.”

Sharing Science

Graycen has also found that the format has a disarming effect on expert guests:  “Everybody is pretty nervous to go on a podcast, so they end up a lot less intimidating; we have professors and other experts over for dinner and discuss their research in a more informal setting. The interviews themselves are also a blast.” Graycen and her co-host have managed to parlay several of their interviews into game nights. Graycen’s favorite stories to tell are about bad scientists: “Our first episode on Buffs Talk Science was on Ryan Zinke, who was a scientist for the Trump administration. He was constantly offering his professional opinion ‘as a geologist’ when he had never worked as a geologist and had only studied geology briefly in college. I like stories with a little bit of controversy, which leaves listeners to formulate their own opinion.”

When she’s not in the lab, working on a new story, or dominating faculty in softball, you might find Graycen mountain biking: “The single tracks in Eerie are great. The prettiest trail I’ve been on was in Bailey, which also happens to be the Bigfoot sighting capital of Colorado.” She also keeps bees, which she inherited from a former classmate who’s now doing patent law in New York. Follow Graycen’s work on Science Buffs and on Twitter @grrriosa.

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