Alex Ochs is a first year Ph.D. student in bioengineering. He grew up in coastal Virginia and completed his undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech in engineering mechanics, then a Master’s in biomedical engineering at UC Irvine. Alex is interested in bringing a quantitative and engineering perspective to the area of human health.
“Graduating from undergrad, I wasn’t sure if a Ph.D. was the right fit. I decided to do a Master’s so I could pivot into industry if needed. I left undergrad with an idea of what biomedical engineering was, and was interested in working with induced pluripotent stem cells. So, I entered my Master’s thinking ‘Yeah! Let’s just do anything involving this!’.
My first lab in my Master’s focused on heart tissue organization. I liked working there, but after a few months of wet lab work, I switched topics to database management to finish my Master’s. I realized that I was missing a lot of background in biology and spent most of a two year period feeling out of place, which eroded any self confidence I had. Despite having been a good student in engineering, I didn’t feel like a true bioengineer because I didn’t do anything that was directly related, and when I did try, I just failed horribly.
It’s really hard to go somewhere new, like grad school, and find your world shattered because it’s what you wanted but not what you imagined. You’ll ask yourself, ‘What went wrong!?’. You’ll be okay. Go with what you enjoy, and keep going that direction. Even though I had a rough start with my Master’s, I realized that tissue engineering was what I wanted to do. I’m just a odd bird because my interest lies more in the engineering elements of tissue engineering than the biology.
Going into my Ph.D., I feel positive. I’m not sure what the future is but I love the university environment and research. I also think there’s something special here at UW. All the grad students are very friendly and intellectually engaged, which is really different. I’m tentatively leaning towards the academic track because I like teaching and mentorship.
For instance, in undergrad, I really loved organic chemistry. I felt disappointed that people had such a negative experience, so I went to the professor and asked if I could help fix this problem by making educational videos. I made five videos over a semester, between four and 30 minutes long. To this day, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It would take five to 10 hours to plan, both conceptually and thinking about how to frame it, then five hours to shoot the video, then editing, which takes double of all of that! It was heartwarming though, because people would tell me, ‘Hey, you did really well on that video and I actually understood because of it!’ That made the effort I put in worth it. But I did burn myself out, and this persisted for most of the following year, which contributed to me not joining a lab until junior year.
Finding a community is helpful in combating tough times like that. During undergrad, I am proud to have taught a first year honors program twice. It was a mandatory seminar in which I was supposed to tell them all about honors, but instead, I decided to just ask about how the semester was going for them. We would have our weekly meetings in different places to show them cool spots like a garden or the farmer’s market, and try to make friends with each other. They could say that they were lonely or having troubles and other people could reply, ‘Hey, me too’. Some of them became close friends of mine, and I’m so proud to see how much they’ve grown.
I enjoy exercise a lot, mainly swimming and running. For me, sports are about doing something to your best without giving up. It’s important to immerse yourself in experiences that make you happy. It’s a trap to put all your happiness in your success in school or research, as you’re linked to the inevitable fluctuations of if your experiments are failing or succeeding. I also like forcing myself to reflect through journaling. Undergrad honors required me to have a blog, but I kept it up to think about stuff out loud. It’s been fun! Over summers, sometimes I would make myself write posts on a schedule. One post was a bunch of fun facts about bridges, just to learn about something interesting.
On being a student: Do things to intentionally decompress, because Lord knows there’s enough other stuff to keep you busy. You can also position yourself to be in better control of your life by knowing how certain things are affecting you through reflection and mindfulness.
On moving around the US: It takes time to adjust. Being in southern California was awesome but overwhelming and disillusioning at points. I like Seattle so much more, with all the greenery and friendly people. It makes more impact than I thought. It’s also important to make friends with new people as fast as possible. I was too shy during my Master’s and felt isolated, but this time I put myself into uncomfortable situations to meet people and it worked out! It sucks and takes time, but we will all get through it.”