An Interview with Kelly Finke on Finding your Way in Research and the Meaning of Failure

Kelly smiling in a red jacket holding a coffee mug

For this post in our collaboration with Princeton Perspectives Project I dusted off my blog-writing skills and had the pleasure of interviewing 2nd year EEB PhD student Kelly Finke. She uses computational biology techniques to study collective human behavior in Professor Corina Tarnita’s lab.

Virginia Cobbs (V): Can you tell me about your career path and how you got interested in what you are doing now? 

Kelly Finke (K): The full story is that I was studying computer science in undergrad and it just didn’t seem like the right environment for me. But I had done computer science and been coding all high school and my brother is a computer scientist so I thought it was super cool. I just didn’t want to stay in that environment. I took this bioinformatics class randomly as my last computer science class before I quit, and the professor was awesome. After the first lecture I sat down with her and asked what I should do since I like computer science, I like coding, but I don’t really want to be working at Google. She said “I can only speak to my path but I do research in computational biology.” I thought, “Oh that sounds cool!”

I did research with her, and every year since then I’ve explored some research topic and jumped around and it’s been really fun. It was something I started doing because I knew how to code and could contribute to a project. You start to get more and more questions and your own interests and eventually you have some sort of direction of where you want to go with your work.

Someone told me I should apply for a PhD and I had no idea what that was. I met with a bunch of professors who said, “You probably won’t get in on your first try but it’s good practice to apply for a PhD and some tech jobs and see how it goes.” I ended up here because it was the most flexible among many other things and am doing the research I am doing now because it’s the cross of a bunch of things I was interested in but didn’t even think would be relevant to they type of research I was doing before.

V: How do you feel like your perception of research changed from before you knew what it was to getting into grad school and actually doing research?

K: One of the biggest changes was that when I was an undergrad doing research, I was excited about the questions I was answering but they weren’t my questions. I found a lab that I liked and I liked the work they did, and every week I would go to my adviser and be like cool here’s what I did and they were like awesome do this next. I think I knew that wasn’t always how it was going to be, but it’s nerve wracking to jump into your PhD knowing ok, it’s gonna be a little different now.

When I got here, my adviser and I would meet every week. I would read 2 or 3 different papers and we would just talk about what I liked about them, and the one day she told me and a fellow student to both present a research idea to lab meeting on Tuesday and it was Thursday and I was like, “Ahh! I don’t have a research idea.” So I just made something up I had written in a notebook in a class during undergrad and that’s the project I’m working on now. You just make it up and then you think, “Oh I guess I could do this in this way.” It’s like exploring a cave with a flashlight, you only figure out what the next turn is when you get there.

V: Do you have any stories of failure that people wouldn’t necessarily see by just looking at the finished product of your research?

This is gonna sound cheesy but I can’t think of a failure story because we have a really good culture in our lab and in our department in general that messing up and going the wrong direction is part of the process. I’ve had plenty of times where I spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t end up being the direction I use, but I wouldn’t consider that a failure. If I think about it that way I think, “Oh, I haven’t had any failures, that’s awesome!” But, by other definitions you would call those failures.

When you’re doing a project, especially as an undergrad, and you have one year to write your thesis and you try something and it doesn’t work out, then of course that’s terrifying because it feels like you have nothing and you have no time. As a grad student, when everything is open to you and you have all this time to figure this stuff out, you are expecting to spend months on things that don’t work out, and it’s kinda fun because sometimes you get to explore something that you’re like “Hmm, maybe this would work?” And it doesn’t work and you’re like huh, and you don’t get too emotionally invested in it.

As an early grad student in a completely new field for me, every time I’m exploring a question or a prompt to try to complete something, I’m using techniques and skills I have never used before. So now the next time I explore a different way to do something, I know how to do that math or I know how to do that coding or something like that. So half the battle is you have to get yourself in enough of these corners just to build up the skill set to finally get it right when the right thing comes. So, very cheesy, but I don’t think I’ve had any “failures” in grad school because I’ve done things that I’m not working on anymore but that’s just part of the process. 

V: Do you have any advice for getting into research especially as an undergrad?

K: It’s never too early to start, and don’t feel like you need anything to start. The best thing to do I think especially if you have no background whatsoever is just find a professor you like in a field that seems exciting to you and go to their office hours and say exactly the truth of the situation.

Say: “Hey, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I really want to research and it seems cool. Where can I start? And can I do that with you? And if not, what other advice do you have?”

I think a huge percent of the time it’ll end up with you getting a position in their lab and being on the exact same page from the start. They’re not going to be expecting you to come in and write a hundred lines of code or do a thousand DNA sequencing experiments your first day, because you’re on the same page that this is a learning experience. And if they’re not down for that, then they probably were not the type of adviser you wanted anyway because it’s all about finding people willing to meet you where you’re at and help you grow from there. It’s a long process, for me at least, to figure out what you even like so there is no point trying to figure out what you like before you start doing anything, you just have to start doing it.

Thanks again to Kelly for participating in our PPP interview series! This conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and length. I really like that we talked about rethinking failure in research and how sometimes the learning process is more important than what is immediately produced.

— Virginia Cobbs, Chief Correspondant