USU Graduate Says Getting PhD is "Like Climbing Mount Everest"

Camille Lake with Mount Everest in the background

By Vivian Mason

Camille Lake trekked in Nepal and climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest. She also climbed a “PhD mountain” by completing USU’s Emerging Infectious Diseases doctoral program, a feat that took five years. 

“I knew for a long time that I wanted to do medicine or research. I started conducting research in college. Then, I decided to go to grad school, she said.”  Lake chose to specifically focus her work on understanding the body’s innate checks and balances system with the hope of improving therapeutics and mitigating some of their side effects. Part of her approach included looking at her study area from a different perspective, with new eyes and a focused mind. She was ready.  

Camille Lake in a lab wearing a white lab coat
Camille Lake selected USU's graduate program for her PhD
studies in part because of the ability to rotate through several
different research labs. (Image credit: Courtesy of Camille
Lake, USU)
When Lake was initially researching various graduate schools, she knew that she enjoyed parasitology. However, she liked the idea of keeping a more broad approach in this field. She wanted to be able to rotate in different labs, which was an option offered by USU, which she found by accident.  “USU is a pretty well-kept secret. I just sort of stumbled upon it. It had everything―a great location, interesting research, and close proximity to NIH,” Lake said.

Although her chosen field of study was parasitology, she took an immunology class and fell in love with it. “The project that I worked on had preliminary data that made it very interesting to study. We had some precursory evidence to suggest that a protein called TIM-3, which was quickly becoming a focus in the immunotherapeutic world, was affecting pretty basic cellular processes. But people had never seen this effect before, so I ran with it.”  Or rather, kept climbing the “mountain” with it.  

“A PhD is hard,” said the academic mountaineer. “It’s like climbing Mount Everest. It takes a long time. You have to acclimate to certain steps to get good at doing certain things.” Initially, you start at base camp and then wind your way up the mountain. Of course, there are always false starts, wrong turns, etc., and you just might have to go back down to regroup. And, you absolutely must have persistence and grit. Pursuing the PhD really teaches you how, if you get knocked down, you have to pick yourself up again, dust yourself off, and keep going.” 

Lake believes the entire point of being in grad school was to learn how to think like a scientist, to learn how to create hypotheses, to effectively research more thoroughly, and to learn how to analyze and reflect on information to determine its validity.

“If something you think was going to happen doesn’t turn out the way you thought, you have to find another avenue to pursue. The majority of the science you actually do is negative data, and you learn from that, too. But, it’s great to discover new things.” 

However, Lake also admits to there possibly being disappointing scenarios that could occur during the process where things just don’t work out. 

“All of this can be disheartening,” she says. “But, in the end, the experience really teaches you how to be persistent in the face of things not being what you think they are.” She suggests taking one step, then another, and another. She believes in the adage, “If you want to see what others cannot, just keep on climbing the PhD mountain.”

Two people climbing Mount Everest
USU 2021 graduate program alumna, Dr. Camille Lake, likened her pursuit of her PhD degree to climbing Mount Everest. (Image credit: Courtesy of Camille
Lake, USU)

Lake felt that the depth of opportunities available to her at USU, in terms of learning, especially in her program, helped solidify her career path, which has pivoted from basic science to promoting scientific transparency in the world of clinical trials. Despite this change, she has really enjoyed doing research. “The biggest lesson that I’ve learned so far is not to get married to your ideas. It’s important to keep an open mind. Think outside the box. You’re here to explore the truth, not to create it,” she declares. 

Lake graduated in May and will start a position with NIH reviewing clinical trials. “I have a good job that I’m really happy about. There are a lot of opportunities to get exposure to different facets of science, and I’ve always been interested in clinical trials and bench research,” she said.

Oddly enough, last year, because of the pandemic and not being able to go into the lab, USU offered students the opportunity to get certificates for completing NIH’s course, “Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Clinical Research.” 

“I thought the course could help me going into a future job market. So, I took it, and it was the one thing the interviewers really liked on my CV. So, USU, in its own way, not only gave me my PhD ... but also allowed me to earn a certificate that helped me get this new career position. We’ll just see where it all takes me.”

The mountain top was within reach because Lake just kept climbing.