Insights From My First Big Failure

Pipette Image Blog photoFor those of you who might be considering graduate school, or those of you who have no idea what you want to do next, I would like to tell you a story. This is the story of my first big failure, and how it changed everything I thought I knew.

In high school, I played by all the rules. I got good grades, I had good relationships with all my teachers, and I did all of the right things to get into college so that I could move out of my hometown. I remember the day I got my acceptance to Northeastern so vividly both because of my excitement, and because my mom argued with me for 20 minutes about how the acceptance couldn’t be real because it didn’t arrive by snail mail.

That fall I started my amazing four and a half years as a student at Northeastern. I had great friends, I loved being part of Husky Ambassadors, and I had three co-ops where I felt I was really figuring out both what I did and didn’t want to do as a career. After my first co-op as a nurse assistant, I knew that absolutely wasn’t for me. So I decided to try research, and after the few weeks at my second co-op I was hooked. I loved the idea of asking questions that didn’t have answers and then pursuing those answers. The thought of discovering something amazing was so glamorous it carried me through both my second and third co-ops and it was during my third co-op (also doing research) that I decided I wanted to get my Ph.D. So the fall of my final year at Northeastern I did some research and applied to four of the best schools with biomedical science programs around the country, and I waited excitedly for the chance to choose between them.

The spring rolled around and as my friends started getting invitations to interview, I was getting rejection letters. It wasn’t long before I had been outright rejected from all of the schools I had applied to and I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself until I could apply again. The simplest way to describe this time in my life is that I was absolutely crushed. In college, I had done all of the “right” things. I was involved on campus with leadership roles, I volunteered, and I worked hard at my co-ops, so I just assumed that all of the doors I wanted would be open to me. Luckily, I had continued working at my third co-op part time and then they offered me a full-time job after graduation.

At Northeastern they say that “we will help guide you and offer support, but it’s up you to work through challenges, failures and learn from them during your six months on co-op” and I found out how true that really was. For just six months, the failed experiments, the stress, and the day to day of repeating the same experiment over and over again were manageable because it was a means to an end. After graduation, the failed experiments and additional stress started getting to me. Eventually, I began to question if this was even that I wanted to do and I became almost grateful for the rejection letters I had gotten. At least I hadn’t committed to five more years of this job I had grown to resent, right? It was in this conflicted state that something amazing happened. I started talking to the people around me. I started asking the right questions. Instead of, what school has the highest rankings? I started questioning what my other options were, instead of just blindly pursuing Ph.D. programs. I ultimately decided that pursuing a Ph.D. was the right option for me, but not for the reasons I had applied the first time.

The second time I applied, it was with the goal of opening doors for myself, not because I was in love with research. Some schools are set on training all of their students to be research faculty, which is a career that a small percentage of PhDs actually pursue. UNC was like a breath of fresh air because not only were they open to my perspective, they have programs designed to help prepare students for any career in the sciences they want. Now, two years into a Ph.D. program at UNC, I couldn’t be happier with my choice. But I shudder to think where I would be if I had gotten in the first time I applied. Ultimately, it was my complete failure to do what I thought I wanted, that forced me to really question my goals and how best to accomplish them.

Blog Post submitted by Katie Stember, a Northeastern Alumni (Class of ’13) who was  involved with Husky Ambassadors as a student. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill studying an autoimmune disease called ANCA Vasculitis. She’s a proud cat mom and in her free time does volunteer photography for a local animal shelter. Feel free to contact her at

The Four People You Meet in Foreign Countries

International Travel

Throughout my time in Uganda and in other travels, I’ve come across many foreigners that I’ve been able to fit into one or two of five categories in my head. This is by no means a complete or all-encompassing list, but a very generalized set of characters that I frequently meet abroad.

The hopeful. This person is the one that is most likely to stay long-term. They enjoy their lifestyle, and they find meaning in their work that gives them a reason to hang around and stay motivated. They are hopeful for the future of the country and believe they are making a difference. This person is great to know, as they are most familiar with the local culture and can give you insight and advice for your time in the country.

The cynic. Hearing this person speak makes you wonder why they are still here. They hate the food, the people, the work. They usually don’t last long, and if they are put here on an assignment, they will complain the entire time until they leave. The cynic isn’t the most fun person to be around, but it can sometimes be amusing to see a person struggle in challenging situations (see Paris Hilton working on a ranch in The Simple Life). Even the optimist has bad days, and the cynic is a nice companion on those days when you need someone to whine with.

The partier. Plenty of fresh-out-of-college, low budget young adults go to developing countries in search for the wild experience of a lifetime in a secluded part of the world. They are usually non-communicative or un-contactable, causing their parents relentless worry and fear for the worst. They’re fun nightlife people, and have plenty of great stories to tell about crazy situations they’ve encountered.

The wanderer. This may be the lone traveler, or the backpacking couple that is making its way across a country or continent. They take comfort in not having a tight schedule or work obligations, and are taking advantage of a period in life where they can take an extended period of time to see the world and experience a part of the world that they know nothing about. You’ll probably meet this person only once, but with some communication and planning you might be able to see them again on a random trip in another country.

When you travel, you meet a lot of interesting people. It’s important to be open-minded and, contrary to the traditional advice, willing to talk to strangers. You never know what you could learn by simply starting a conversation on a bus or in a restaurant. As my time in Uganda is coming to an end, I can say that one of the best things about being here has been meeting the range of characters, both local people and foreigners. I’ve met a Russian wedding dress designer, a kindergarten teacher, several Peace Corps volunteers, a lone traveler making her way down the east coast of Africa, a Spanish salsa instructor, a missionary working in the nomadic Karamoja, a Canadian couple running a primary school, and a Ugandan man trying to establish a turkey farm.

Mika White is a second year biochemistry major at Northeastern expecting to graduate in 2018. This semester she is on her first co-op in Uganda interning at a rural hospital in the town of Iganga and establishing a malnutrition treatment program in Namutumba District. She loves to travel, read, and run. Feel free to reach out to her at and LinkedIn, and read her personal blog at

E-Calendar or Paper Planner: A Comparison

We all have our favorite way to planning our hectic lives, whether it be on a paper planner or an online calendar. Or if you’re me, it’s both! I use Google Calendar (as well as just about every other function Google offers) for my online calendar and a Passion Planner for planning on paper. They offer different options and I’m going to outline some differences between the two.

Society is moving greatly to a fully electronic record nowadays. Its scary, but it sort of works, which is wonderful. I find my online calendar very useful as I can always access it, don’t have to worry about carrying it around, and can easily repeat events instead of writing them in every week. However, probably my favorite aspect of an electronic calendar is the ability to block off times. For instance, if I’m working from 7am-3pm, I can’t really plan anything during then, so having this type of layout allows me to see my available and busy times. As someone who tends to be on the busier side, seeing my free time is a breath of fresh air that I didn’t exactly find in a paper planner.

Paper planners come in all different shapes, sizes, and forms. The one I use has space to make to-do lists, note-taking space, goals for the week, and so much more. It’s meant to plan your life in a more goal-orientated manner, which works really well when I have plenty of projects to do. However, it’s not the best layout for planning all of my time.

That’s why I use both. I have one to plan my time and one to plan my projects and outline my weekly tasks. Having them separate allows me to make sure it all matches up and gives me options depending on the task at hand. For work tasks and projects, I tend to use paper planners, as I usually have projects and tasks to do. For scheduled shifts and class times, an online calendar is my best friend.

So, use one, use two, use none, it’s your choice! I do recommend using at least one as planning your day-to-day activities is crucial to staying on top of your tasks.

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