My Unusual Path to Neuroscience, and Research

Category Student Voices


Photo of Raymond
Raymond Class of '25
Authored on May 03, 2024


I remember having a conversation with my mom where I essentially regurgitated my desire to research plants and plant medicine in college.

Picture of a small bamboo plant rooted in a bottle with water on top of a red wooden surface.
I've loved plants for as long as I've known. I've had plants like this one in my room since I first got my own room.

As a kid, I knew little about research, but I knew I wanted to be part of it when I grew older. Fast forward a few years, and I’m now working in the Faja Lab at the Boston Children’s Hospital as a student intern.

What happened in between? A lot!

Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to do research. As a kid, I thought scientists looked so cool with their bottles, lab coats, and bubbling chemicals. Later, I realized research was about so much more than that. In high school, I studied genetics through fruit fly experiments, learned about the lens through dissecting cow eyes, and wrote papers upon papers about literature and how the disconnect between agricultural science and farmers contributed to the Great American Dust Bowl.

In high school, I realized research was a limitless adventure where I could explore just about anything. It’s a curious kid’s playground, a skeptic’s dreamland. When I realized I had a passion for plants, chemicals, and psychology, I thought, “Why not research all of these?”

Close-up picture of a flowering lavender plant in a garden.
I was (and still am) particularly interested in terpenes and terpenoids in herbs like lavender.

So, I came into college ready to take on a unique branch of science: plant chemistry. But, when I arrived, I realized there were few labs studying plants, and no labs studying plant chemistry. My passion was a unique one at best.

It took a while to realize that my passions were not what I had thought they were. Through the past few years, I’ve learned so much about myself and what I am interested in. In this blog, I’d like to share my journey to choosing Neuroscience and working in a research lab.

An Unexpected Path to Neuroscience

Interested in plants and their chemicals, I came into college with one concentration (Harvard’s word for major) in mind: Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB). There are around 9 life sciences concentrations at Harvard, but I just knew I wanted to do MCB. I’d done my research. I’d get the chance to study how chemicals interact with the body and brain, I thought. I’d learn about how individual cells might interact with different compounds, I thought.

Well, I was wrong—in two ways. First, despite thinking I knew everything about MCB, MCB was not the only concentration that studied those interactions. If anything, Chemical and Physical Biology (or just Chemistry) might be better suited to studying those relationships. Second, after taking a few classes on molecular biology, I realized that MCB was awesome, but it wasn’t the only subject that interested me.

During sophomore year, I decided to take an intro neuroscience class called Neuro 80, one of the foundational MCB classes that double counts as a neuroscience class. I loved it! I realized I was fascinated by the brain and how it worked. My journey in neuroscience began with learning about neurons and the history of neuroscience and evolved into studying the molecular basis of behavior. I found myself drawn to the inner workings of the mind and brain. I took a psychology class, and since then, I’ve taken four more. By the time I realized I was interested in the mind and brain, I had already declared Neuroscience on the Mind, Brain, and Behavior (MBB) track as my concentration.

Picture of a male-presenting student holding a brain.
Brains are cool!

Then, this year, I realized that my passion for plants and plant science had never disappeared. I took an MBB seminar called “Drug Use in Nature” (one of the best classes I’ve taken at Harvard!) where we learned about bugs that can sense chemicals released by rotting wood to find homes, cardiac glycosides and why monarch butterflies are resistant to them, and the role of terpenes and terpenoids in plant survival. The class was eye-opening. Somehow, it brought together everything I was interested in—plants, chemistry, psychology, the brain, and medicine. After junior fall, I realized my “passion” was not one thing, but rather a conglomerate of many things. Realizing that opened up my eyes to so many new possibilities, perspectives, and opportunities.

Close-up picture of a green and yellow dawn redwood leaf.
Like "Tree," a class on trees that I took my first year, this class brought me a new appreciation of plants and how they work.

A Winding Road to Research

I’d always wanted to do research, but I came into college set on doing one thing: plants. I realized later on that there were other interesting topics, too—like behavioral and developmental neuroscience! At the beginning of my junior year, I’d been thinking about joining a lab when, one day, I got an email about an opportunity at the Boston Children’s Hospital. The Faja Lab was a clinical psychology and cognitive neuroscience lab studying individual differences observed in autistic children. I was fascinated by psychiatry, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience, so this lab felt like the perfect match. I applied with great hopes, and was invited to join the team!

However, my journey to this point took a while. When I came in as a first-year, I was intimidated by research. After attending the annual Harvard Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Science (HUROS) fair, I realized research was far more complex than I had thought. Without any previous research experience, I didn’t feel ready. However, the fair seeded in me a hope to learn more.

By the end of my first year, I had reached out to several labs, but I realized that many of them weren’t the right fit for me. So, I waited. During sophomore year, I had found a few cool plant science labs, but, unfortunately, I was busy during the school year and already had summer plans, so the timing didn’t work out. Some of the labs were also at capacity, so I would have to wait. When my junior year began, I had started thinking more about ways to explore the intersection between psychology and neuroscience. That’s when I came across the Faja Lab!

Picture of a "Boston Children's Hospital" sign on a stone wall.
A picture I took the first time I visited the Boston Children's Hospital to get my badge.

I will never forget the first day I went to Boston Children’s Hospital. I was excited to work with children, and everyone on the team was incredibly kind, fun, and supportive. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of the team!

Picture of penguin plushies in a box.
Meet Pompom, our lab mascot!


I remember receiving a letter that I wrote for myself last year. “Are you still studying neuroscience on MBB—are you now working in a lab?” Yes, and yes! It’s been a crazy ride, but I’m so happy about where I've ended up. I could never have imagined that after a few years, I’d be working in an awesome lab studying something I love. I’m excited for this summer and upcoming year when I’ll be working on a project exploring the relationship between executive function and play that will (hopefully!) culminate in a senior thesis. Here’s to a new beginning!

Picture of a drawing of a brain on a whiteboard with the words "Memory" and "#Braintree" written beside it.
A picture I drew in one of my psychology classes. Somehow, "Braintree" sums up what I'm interested in.

I’d like to shout out everyone at my lab and Ryan, my Neuroscience concentration advisor, for making my experience in research so great! I’m looking forward to this upcoming year and am excited about this summer.


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Raymond Class of '25

Hey everyone! My name is Raymond, and I’m a junior at Harvard College studying Neuroscience on the Mind, Brain, and Behavior track. I live in Currier House—objectively the best house at the College!

Photo of Raymond Zheng