Real Lives of Graduate Students: Mike Rieger

Posted on December 26, 2011


We continue our Selecting Stones feature series “Real Lives of Graduate Students” with a look into the world of a scientist named Mike Rieger.



Mike Rieger





Why graduate school, as opposed to something else?

I would like to be a research scientist.  There isn’t really a “license” for that, but I need a PhD in order to pursue that career path.  Part of me would also not mind teaching at a small liberal arts college, so ultimately it will be depend on the amount of stress I want in my life.  In any case, graduate work will be necessary.

What is the significance of your Work?

The significance of my Work is difficult to define right now because I am a first year student.  What this means is that I have neither selected a thesis laboratory nor a thesis project.  However, I am broadly interested in human behavior and the molecular nuts-and-bolts which allow this behavior to develop.  The significance of my work, I hope, is to understand the molecular mechanisms in cases where things go wrong (neurological disorder), although I can’t say I’m in it to cure people of diseases.  There have to be selfish bastards like me who figure out how things work purely for enjoyment and self-aggrandizing fulfillment such that other people can take our tools and do some good for humanity, if they are so inclined.

What do you see as the fundamental essence of academic study?

Masturbatory self-indulgence.  Really, though, I think it depends on the discipline.  A PhD in science is just an academic version of a trade school.  A lot of my work happens in my head and with math and computers and scraps of paper, the rest happens in the trenches… or the lab bench.  I’ve never thought my discipline too different from the path of any trade.  I think it differs in the humanities, but I’m not the guy to ask about that.  So the fundamental essence of my own academic study is professional training.  I am being trained to figure out how biology works.

What keeps you awake at night?

The cat.  It’s like having a kid that never grows up.  She, however, is very cuddly and makes a great subject for pictures with funny captions.

What are the meanings of your actions and desires?

I am plagued with constant, enfeebling meta-analysis.  When I have sex, I am simultaneously thinking about the mechanics of sex.  When I throw a wadded-up piece of paper into a trash can from several feet away, I am thinking about the social ramifications of missing it (embarrassment) or making the shot (praise).  However, when I pause to think of meaning, I draw a blank.  I don’t think any action or desire has any meaning to me as an animal other than the contextual meanings that action or desire assume at the time it occurs.   I see life as a confluence of probabilistic events, and I’m okay with that.

Why are you who you are?

When I was a child, I used to stay up late at night reading in improper lighting so that my parents wouldn’t know I was awake.  I ruined my eyes doing this and I now wear glasses.  I couldn’t imagine being a graduate student without wearing a pair of glasses.  When I was 20, I went on a vacation to Toronto.  In Chinatown I discovered a Bubble Tea-Hair Salon-Internet Café.  Today on an airplane, a man said, “You know, I find myself saying things to my kid like I say them to my dog.”  These are why I am a scientist and also an excellent patron of public houses.

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