Could you take a minute to explain what your work focuses on?
Pepper: I do a lot of microbiology and research in Nitin Baliga’s lab at ISB on different kinds of bacterial pathogens that have become really problematic, because they have evolved resistance to antibiotics. So, a lot of my research is about understanding how that happens and how to prevent the emergence of resistance. I am working to understand on a cellular system-wide level what changes once that bacteria acquires resistance, both in terms of genetics, gene expression, protein expression and metabolism. Our goal is to leverage all that information to hopefully design new and potent drug combinations that can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
You’re a PhD student and are towards the end of your formal education. We’re high schoolers so we’re at the very beginning. Can you reflect on some of the moments that strapped onto you in this process, or do you have any words of advice?
Pepper: Yeah, of course. So, when I was in high school, I had a teacher in my sophomore year who had his PhD in MCD Bio [Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology]. He was a business owner and also a high school teacher. He would go to these molecular biology garage sales and get equipment that he would keep in his classroom and let us use. When I was a sophomore, I was doing DNA extractions, PCR [Polymerase Chain Reaction], and learning about molecular biology/biotechnology. I was like: I don’t know what any of this means. I was so lost. Up until then, I wanted to be an astronomer and wanted to do astrophysics. I was super interested in space. And then, he really introduced us to biology, human health, and molecular biology. It was a very influential and important time in my life.
At the time, when I was a sophomore in high school, my brother was a sophomore in college. He went to a four year college, and we don’t come from money, so he was taking a lot of loans and I realized that I don’t want to do that. I wanted to do a junior college for a couple of years and transfer to a university. I was talking to my school counselor in my junior year and she encouraged me to apply to a four year college. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to major in, though, and California schools have you choose a major or have a preference at least. I had no idea how any of that worked. I took the PSAT and totally bombed it. I was never good at standardized tests. However, I decided that I was going to college and had a feeling I wanted to do engineering of some sort. I wanted to build stuff, and was also interested in biology, because I wanted to use my hands. I literally googled ‘engineering majors’ and started reading websites about the kinds of engineering. Civil engineering, that’s cool, I want to build stuff. Then, there was computer engineering and electrical engineering and I didn’t know about those. And I saw bioengineering. All it said was that you had to have an interest in biology, have to be decent at math, and have really good communication skills. Okay, cool, I will do that. So, I applied to colleges with the intention of doing bioengineering. I didn’t really know what it meant, but just went with it and ended up going to UC Santa Cruz.
I started taking the intro biology classes, the intro chemistry classes, the intro math classes, and said “wait, I love this.” I enjoyed most of my classes and it was all going really well. I started taking upper division classes and I kind of just lucked out. College was a whole new experience. And I think one of the biggest takeaways for me, at least in college and preparing for college…I didn’t really have anyone to help me through that process and had to figure it out. In college, I also had to figure stuff out as I went. The biggest piece of advice I can say is that if you don’t ask for help you are not going to get help. You’re your own biggest advocate. Don’t be afraid…Often times when I ask people for help I think that I am bothering them and probably using up their time from doing something more productive. But, that is a bad way of thinking. If you don’t ask for help, you aren’t going to get help. That was one of my biggest takeaways from college. Nothing was just handed to me. Nothing will be handed to you, unless you are really lucky. You have to take the initiative, advocate for yourself, and put yourself in a position to do what you want to do. At the end of the day, to a large extent, it’s up to you to do what you want to do. Don’t feel like you’re bothering people, just ask for help. Just ask. Asking questions is always, always the right way to go.
What was your dream job as a kid and how does that compare to what you are doing right now?
Pepper: My dream job when I was a kid was…actually, I had a whole business planned. When I was 7 years old, I had an entire business plan established. So, growing up, I wanted to be a chef and a pilot. Two very different things from what I am doing now. I still cook all the time so I am still a chef. I wanted to create a business where I could offer flight tours of the general region of the area and do some sightseeing. And then being able to allow folks to go on this scenic flight and then come back and have a whole meal at a restaurant next to the airport. It could be a bundle situation where you could pay for the tour and the dinner and it’s all inclusive. It would be a super cool thing for a couple to do or something like that. I still want to do that and I still think it’s a solid business plan to be able to give flight tours. I would need my private pilot license and everything involved in running a restaurant would be a part of that too. How does that translate into what I am doing now? I am obsessed with airplanes and have been obsessed with them my whole life, and I think that being interested in how something complicated actually works is the fundamental mindset that I’ve always had. Whether it’s like the formation of a galaxy or how a cell divides, these are all extremely complex systems that require a thorough understanding of a lot of different things. That’s the only way it translates into what I am doing now. Like, woah, how does that work? It is just the mindset.
What is something that stood out to you about working at ISB? Or your favorite memory?
Pepper: The banana stand. Free bananas, honestly. The other thing that stands out…it’s pretty standard honestly. Every lab I have ever been in has been like: Oh, we don’t know how to do this. Let’s go talk to the lab next door or the lab upstairs and they can help us with that. That’s ISB. When we don’t know how to do something, let’s ask another lab. We have like a dozen different labs at ISB so when you don’t know how to do something, someone has the answer. But that’s been pretty consistent throughout my experience in research. If you need help, someone nearby has the answer. It’s just that access to them can be inconsistent. But here, everyone’s down to just help. It’s pretty cool.
Throughout your whole journey in science, has there been a time or moment that affected your mental health? This can be in terms of burnout, stress, etc.
Pepper: I feel like I’ve always been a happy person. I don’t do things I don’t want to do. Period. Maybe that’s just a privilege for me to say, and it probably is. Even when I was taking my hard classes that felt pointless, I knew that this was all for the big picture. Sometimes in the moment, it was like aw this sucks. But then, big picture, I’m learning and building character and trying to find the silver lining in all the situations I was in. I am already at peace that I am never the smartest in the room. So, it was only going to do myself a disservice if I didn’t ask questions or speak up. I’ll always be a student. There is always more that I don’t know than I do know. That’s just how it is; that’s just reality. It’s because this stuff is important. We got to have the right people working on this stuff to create change, make progress, and learn new things. I just have high expectations for myself and I hope I am meeting my own expectations and the expectations of others. It’s stressful sometimes.
I also like socializing and hanging out with friends. That definitely helps with my mental health. I live alone, but I am rarely alone. My friends have been my saving grace for as long as I can remember. I rely on them to destress. A lot of my friends aren’t in grad school. They are doing different stuff. It’s nice to hang out with someone outside of grad because I can just forget about it and step away. When I come back to it, I am ready to go. Maintaining my work-life balance has been a huge part of [the] stability of my mental health. I have a therapist and I think everyone should have a therapist. I don’t really feel like I need a therapist but I have one just in case. We meet every other week and it’s cool. Otherwise, trying to maintain a good diet, spending time with friends, and doing stuff outside of science, it’s all what keeps my head working well. Exercising, that’s my stress outlet. I go play basketball if I am stressed and it works 10 times out of 10. I always feel better afterward. Just finding those stress outlets have been a huge part of my life.
What is something in your future that you are excited for?
Pepper: Getting my pilot’s license.
Are you working towards it?
Pepper: No, not yet. I am just excited for it. Something I am excited for in my future…Definitely getting my PhD, number one. That’s my number one priority, obviously.
How much longer do you have [At ISB]?
Pepper: About three years. But it’s already been two and it went by fast. I love Seattle and I am on cruise control right now.
What else are you looking forward to in life?
Pepper: Traveling. My older brother has been in between jobs recently and he has been traveling all over the world – all over South America, all over Southeast Asia, Central America – all these places that I want to go to and he’s just traveling the world. The guy is a few years older than me and I am just jealous. I am just itching to get out and travel. I want to go to festivals, concerts, and go out to eat somewhere nice every once in a while. Stuff I can’t do right now. Just having the capacity to do whatever I want.
Those were all of our fancy questions but now we have some fun ones. What’s one of your pet peeves?
Pepper: I definitely have a big pet peeve – when people are not willing to admit that they are wrong. That’s my biggest pet peeve. Just admit that you are wrong. It’s okay. If you are willing to admit you are wrong, that is respect. There is honor in that.
What is your go-to comfort meal?
Go-to comfort meal? I mean, if I really want to treat myself, it has to be either sushi or poke. Or ramen. Pho is really good after a late night of studying. Yeah. Takis. The chips.
What is the dumbest way you have been injured?
Pepper: It was all sports. So, I was on the track and field team in college and we were midway through the season and training for the 4×100. And, I was practicing my handoffs to my friend. I was pushing myself really hard that year, taking the hardest classes and pulling all-nighters all the time. So, my body was kind of shutting down. I was more prone to injury. I was doing reps and after a few, I felt my hamstring kind of tighten up a little bit, and I did another and felt it kind of tug a little bit. I knew at that moment after doing some jumps that it doesn’t feel good. I knew that if I did another I might hurt myself. And I still did it. We had a meet the next day and I was like, no, I want to be in this race. I prioritized short term gratification over my physical health. I did that last rep and pulled my hamstring. I was out the rest of the season. I knew what was going to happen before it happened, and I let it happen. It was just such a bummer.
Anything else you want to say?
Just, stay curious. If you are ever at a point in your life where you are genuinely not having fun, take a step back and think about if what you are doing is what you want to be doing. I know a lot of people don’t have the same luxury as me… my parents both went to college and did non-STEM degrees. They couldn’t tell you what DNA is. They don’t know what a PhD is. They don’t know what it means. So, a lot of people are pressured by family members to pursue a certain career and I can’t really say anything about folks who are in those situations. But if you feel like you are in the position to control your own life, control it. And, do what you want to do. Don’t let people tell you that this is what you should be doing. Trust your gut. As soon as you stop having fun, that’s a red flag. A big red flag. I mean yeah, you should enjoy the work that you do in the lab if you want to continue research. Hopefully, you don’t dread the work you do…I’m talking about the fun outside of work. Surround yourself with friends and don’t stop doing that. Don’t do any of this by yourself. So, as long as you surround yourself with people who are like-minded and love you and you love them, everything will be good. Don’t stop having fun. That’s really the moral of the story.
“ The biggest piece of advice I can say is that if you don’t ask for help you are not going to get help. You’re your own biggest advocate. Don’t be afraid…. Nothing was just handed to me. Nothing will be handed to you, unless you are really lucky. You have to take the initiative, advocate for yourself, and put yourself in a position to do what you want to do. At the end of the day, to a large extent, it’s up to you to do what you want to do. “ – Evan Pepper