When she was young, Christine Liu didn’t plan to become a scientist. But chasing her curiosity led her to love neuroscience, the study of the brain and the nervous system. She’s now a graduate student and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. There, she studies what nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco and e-cigarettes, does to the brain.
Outside the lab, Liu makes art, including some that communicates science. As half of the collective Two Photon Art, with environmental scientist Tera Johnson, Liu makes self-published magazines that illustrate science concepts. And the pair designs and sells science-themed items such as jewelry and clothes. Liu also shares her work on Instagram (such as the posts embedded in this story).
Liu isn’t yet sure if her future is in the lab or making art, but she knows that neuroscience will be a big part of her career. In this interview, Liu shares her experiences and advice with Science News for Students. (This interview has been edited for content and readability.)
What inspired you to pursue your career?
I pursued neuroscience because of a curiosity about how the world works. Even as a little kid, I was interested in how people experience things differently. So I would ask questions like, “Is the red that I see the same as the red that everyone else sees?” When I started learning about psychology and biology and answers to these questions that researchers proposed, I got more interested. In college, I jumped at the opportunity to get in the lab as soon as I could. And I quite like doing lab work. But I’ve been doing research for almost 10 years. So I might take the opportunity when I graduate to do art more seriously.
How did you get where you are today?
I grew up not really being that great at anything. It wasn’t like I knew I had a special talent in science and that I was going to become a scientist. I also grew up low-income. My family didn’t have a lot of money. As a kid, I spent a lot of time helping out around the house. I translated documents for my family and made sure that the rice was cooked before my parents got home. And I started working part-time jobs really early. In high school, I worked at a Jamba Juice and at a science museum. I did a bunch of jobs in college, too.
My college applications weren’t very strong. So I didn’t get into the colleges in California I actually wanted to go to. Instead, I needed to apply last minute to the local state school. I went to University of Oregon in Eugene. It wasn’t on the top of my list, but there were a lot of opportunities in neuroscience there. I was really able to take advantage of them. I overcame a lot of what I thought were shortcomings in my ability and competitiveness to do science.
When I started doing research, I was lucky to be in a lab with other female students. And I had done summer research programs with a diverse community of students and researchers. But when I started grad school, I was a little surprised at how few women and people of color I saw.
I also wasn’t sure how to express myself — if I needed to conform more or if I could really be myself. But then on Instagram, I found all these women who were not compromising how they express themselves. They were doing incredible science. And they were wearing lipstick and doing their hair and being feminine. This was something that I hadn’t realized was missing in my life. I immediately tried to connect all of us on Instagram, and I created a group called The STEM Squad. (STEM is short for science, technology, engineering and math.) We now have over 1,000 people who identify with the gender that’s been underrepresented in science. We each share our experiences and support each other.
How do you get your best ideas?
I get my best ideas when I’m taking a break. This happens for a lot of people. It’s like getting your best ideas in the shower or on a walk or right before you fall asleep. I find that when I’m taking care of myself and getting enough rest and social time, I come up with ideas I’m really excited about. Oftentimes, I’ll have a breakthrough in planning experiments when I’m not thinking about them. It’s the same for artistic ideas of what to draw or make. I think when I let my brain rest, it does its own thing in the background and ideas just spark.
What’s one of your biggest successes?
What I’ve been able to do with my art in grad school has been one of my biggest successes. It’s brought me a lot of joy and connected me with people. It’s also given me an idea of how I might actually be able to continue doing art after I finish grad school.
Labs in my research area can be competitive. Oftentimes, we don’t want to share our experimental results until we’re ready. So it wasn’t until this past year, my sixth year of grad school, that I presented my research at the biggest neuroscience conference. I presented it with a poster. But I’ve been going to this conference for the past four years because they have a section for neuroscience art. Presenting my art there was a big success.
What’s one of your biggest failures, and how did you get past that?
What I perceived to be a failure was when I worked hard in high school to try to be competitive for college. And I didn’t get into a school that seemed like a good choice for me. I was really sad. I thought I was a complete failure. A lot of my peers had gotten into great schools. But in the end, I realized that every failure is actually an opportunity to do better. I think if I had let myself get sucked into the narrative that I just wasn’t good enough, I never would have recovered. In the end, the University of Oregon turned out to be really great for me.
What do you do in your spare time?
I make art! Because research is really hard, there can be lots of failures. Experiments might not work. Or they might work and prove your hypothesis wrong. During a stretch of months when research feels like it isn’t working, I find it fulfilling to go home and draw, paint or share a piece of art. I really love painting. It’s one of my favorite activities. I love the colors and mixing them. And I like how it’s a little bit messy. I also do other things that keep me happy and healthy, like cooking and visiting my grandparents.
I also try to support other scientists who have artistic interests or artists who have scientific interests through The Stem Squad. We raise money through artists in the community who submit their art. We print it on shirts, hats or things like that and sell them. This raises money to give out awards for people who do volunteer work to improve inclusion in STEM.
What piece of advice do you wish you had been given when you were younger?
If there’s something that you really want to do, you have to take baby steps and start to do it as much as you can. If I had waited until someone invited me to join a lab, maybe I never would have started my research career. But because I was so in love with the idea of doing brain research, I emailed a bunch of professors and begged for a chance to work in the lab. Then I proved to myself that I can be a really great scientist despite my mediocre high school grades.
Also, if I had waited until I had more time to make art or until I felt like a perfect artist before selling my art, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It took me a while to become comfortable sharing things that aren’t perfect and trying things even though I probably wasn’t the best person for the job. But taking the risk and putting myself out there and being willing to learn — I think that’s what’s gotten me the furthest.
This Q&A is part of a series exploring the many paths to a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.