Elizabeth Co admits that school was definitely not her thing as a kid. She preferred books and daydreaming over paying attention in class.
"There was no subject that really stuck out to me," she said. "I was really not a spectacular student at all."
But when she took her first high school biology class, everything changed. For one, she had a supportive teacher who, for the first time, acted as an academic mentor. But Co said what really attracted her to the subject was all of the lessons on the human body. She became obsessed with processes like cellular respiration and developed the beginnings of what she called a "crush" on the heart.
"It is just so elegantly structured," said Co. "It's exquisitely simple and yet so very effective."
Like a lot of students who have an interest in biology, Co started college thinking she'd become a doctor. She enrolled at Mount Holyoke College as a pre-med major but quickly realized it wasn't going to be a good fit. She said that moment of clarity came during a meeting with other pre-med students who were talking about why they wanted to be a doctor.
"I was like well, gosh, I really, really don't like sick people at all. So I thought maybe I'll be a pathologist and all of my patients would be dead," she laughed. "But I couldn't quite see myself dealing with snot, for example."
Searching For The Right Career
Co remembered feeling a little lost after that revelation. She tried following other paths, like becoming a high school biology teacher, but nothing felt right. But even though she felt like she was floundering, her passion for the human body remained constant.
"I mean, plants are cool, but for me, it was always bodies," she said.
"I just knew that I wanted to tell people about this. And I wanted to explain it. And I wanted to talk about it forever."Elizabeth Co
She filled her schedule each year with as many related classes as possible from immunology to neurobiology. And then, one day senior year, another moment of clarity.
Co's advanced physiology class took a field trip to a local physiologist's office. He handed her two human hearts: one that came from a person with normal blood pressure and one from a person who had chronic high blood pressure.
"I was looking at this story that had unfolded for these two individuals over time. In my hands," she said. Co could distinctly see and feel how the condition had changed one of the hearts: the ventricles were thickened by years of struggling to pump blood through the body.
"I just knew that I wanted to tell people about this," Co said. "And I wanted to explain it. And I wanted to talk about it forever."
That's when her path to becoming a professor and researcher started to become clear.
Co will emphatically tell you that she has long loved her job. In her early career, she has treasured moments in the lab, before research would be published, when she was the only one who knew the answer to a particular question.
"It's intoxicating," she said.
Today, she's most passionate about teaching.
Holding office hours is a big part of Co's job. But many of the questions students ask have nothing to do with classwork. A lot of them come looking for advice on career and life goals.
"They very much think it's about getting that next internship and that next internship," she said. "They're almost putting together the portfolio that leads them to the place, rather than exploring themselves."
Which is where her own story becomes a teaching tool. Co said the key is following your curiosity.
"As you go through life, sometimes there are these moments," she advised. "Listen to them."
This article was originally published on January 27, 2020.
This segment aired on January 27, 2020.