Carey You Lim Huh, Project Scientist

Carey You Lim Huh graduated with a PhD from the Integrated Program in Neuroscience in 2013. She currently works as a Project Scientist.

Q: What made you decide to do a PhD?

I had my undergraduate education at UBC where I was pretty heavily involved in research as an undergraduate. There was actually a classroom-based research project where the biopsychology majors could design experiments, run the experiments on each other, and present it. That actually ended up becoming my first publication. I was very excited by this process. I got hands-on experience as an undergraduate student participating in research, and that solidified my interest in continuing research. As I went further in my undergraduate education, I got involved in research in two different laboratories. I really saw myself doing lab work in the future. That’s why I decided to do a PhD.

Q: What did you value the most about your time in graduate school?

I valued the opportunity to grow further as a scientist, with great mentorship and friendship. The lab I did my PhD in was at the Douglas Research Institute, which is a psychiatric hospital. The hospital cafeteria was where all the staff went to eat and there would be a table of PIs, and then there would be a table of students, post-docs, and staff—we all sat together and we were not segregated by labs. Even if it was just during lunch, we all got to know each other, and I really appreciated that. I think because the Douglas Institute was a very collegial and friendly place, I had a network of friends, colleagues, and other professors that I could reach out to afterwards for career advice.

I had a very good mentor who gave me a lot of freedom to develop my own style of science. The hands-off approach worked really well with my personality. I felt that the support and the guidance was there if I needed it. I benefited a lot from that freedom because as a postdoc, you’re expected to be a fully independent person with a little bit of guidance from your mentor.

Q: Were there any opportunities you wished you had?

I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to teach. Actually, it was kind of discouraged—there were ways that you can do some teaching, but it doesn’t always come with a very strong endorsement from your supervisor. But the fact is, in today’s job climate, the reality of the academic job market is that it’s very hard to limit yourself to those R1 universities. They want to see some teaching and that you’ve given some serious thought about your teaching philosophy. I think it just helps if you’re a more well-rounded person, not just somebody that’s been in the lab for years.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?

The biggest challenge for me was knowing when to stop. I think towards the end of PhD, you want to go to the next position if you have the next position set. But even if you have physically moved and started at your new position, your mind is still in some ways distracted by what you left behind—you have to submit that paper, work on it on evenings and weekends—that can be draining when you’re trying to get a brand new project off the ground. So the biggest challenge for me was the timing. I could have left the unfinished stuff unfinished, but then I had enough data in there for another paper. What I ended up doing was coming back—I came back two more times to Montreal to actually gather more data to finish that paper.

The extensive amount of freedom that I was given to direct my own time and project was working against me, especially at the end. That posed a challenge because I took a really long time writing my thesis and my PI let me do that.

The other challenge was picking a postdoc position. I had my own kinds of challenges picking the right environment to do my postdoc training. This is my third postdoctoral appointment. That jump from PhD to postdoc was something that could have used a lot more mentoring and discussion, but I sort of ended up going with my gut and things worked out eventually.

Q: So what do you do currently?

I am a project scientist, so I am still doing research in the lab, but with the added responsibility of looking for faculty positions and funding. I also spend some time reviewing for journals.

My day-to-day consists of doing experiments. I do in vivo imaging of a mouse’s brain while they are awake and look at things from the visual part of their brain. It’s really exciting—you can use fluorescent markers to record activity directly in some cells. So I’m watching cells light up as the brain is processing information in real-time. These movies of cells firing in the brain are very heavy on the data-processing side. So I do have to do a fair bit of processing and data analysis. Lastly, I do some presentations of my data in lab meetings or in collaborator meetings.

I also do some mentoring of graduate students who have projects that I’ve been involved in—helping them analyze the data and write papers. Other than that, I spend some time in my day looking for jobs or funding.

Q: So drawing from all your experiences, what would be your advice to someone who’s currently pursuing their PhD?

Find out what about science that excites you. I think developing as a scientist is the first thing, because learning how to be a scientist teaches you a lot of skills, not just about being a scientist, but about being a critical thinker, about troubleshooting, about being resourceful and knowing how to find people or solutions. If you decide that academia is the direction you want to go, then I think it’s good to think about getting a wide range of mentors that can guide you for different aspects of your path. It’s important to surround yourself with a lot of guidance and the appropriate kind of support. People in academia that are in it for the right reasons will be willing to help and they want to see the people succeed.

The other advice is to just have fun doing science and have fun with your projects. Really find something that you’re excited about and you’re having fun doing because that really shows when you’re presenting your data in any context. These are the best years of your life. You want to develop as a person as well. Don’t be afraid to have a relationship or broaden your circle of friends. Go travel. Because at the end of the day, the papers you write or what you don’t end up publishing are not everything that should consume your life. 

Carey’s advice for students doing a PhD.

Q: If you could go back to before your PhD and tell yourself something, what would that be?

I would advise myself not to be as stressed and as scared. Be yourself and be fearless. Don’t think that you’re not good enough or don’t deserve to go to that conference. You deserve it, you deserve everything.

I think also just be more flexible and be open-minded about what is outside of science, because these could be exciting things.

Many thanks to Carey for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn and her newest research in press at The Journal of Neuroscience.

This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.