‘Your life experiences are valuable’

Zak Peet shares his journey to become a researcher

By Hansook Oh

May 10, 2024

Zak Peet holds a sign that says “This is what a researcher looks like. “#BecomeAResearcher”

Zak is currently a graduate student at Binghamton University in New York pursuing a PhD in Community Research and Action. 

Zak Peet’s non-traditional path to become a researcher might buck expectations of a scientist's story. 

In the latest episodes of Enhance Science’s Become A Researcher series, Zak shares about his journey from houselessness and substance abuse to enrolling in community college and starting his doctoral degree. 

Zak began his college career at the age of 35, after getting clean from drug addiction. He enrolled at Los Angeles Pierce College and at first, found himself feeling like a fish out of water as one of the oldest students in his community college classrooms.

He felt self-doubt and struggled with the negative and self-critical thoughts that come with imposter syndrome. In Episode 10, “Able to Believe in Myself,” Zak shares how his experience getting sober helped him develop the ability to be vulnerable and honest in class, which became invaluable in his academic journey.

“One of my greatest skills is asking for help,” he said. “You know, I've asked some stupid questions, but doing that a few times, I didn't explode and I didn’t, like, die right on the spot. So I’m like, okay, I could do that again, you know?”

Zak transferred to California State University, Northridge, where he was introduced to research through the BUILD PODER undergraduate research training program, funded by the National Institutes of Health. He credits the program with helping him build the self-efficacy and the personal and professional network he needed to succeed. 

“The mentors I've had in BUILD have helped me integrate my life,” Zak said. “Like, your life experiences are valuable and like, we're going to use that to… turn your life experiences into this scientific skill. So because they believed in me… I'm now able to believe in myself.”

The program provided him more than just research training. He learned how to apply to scholarships and graduate school, was funded to do summer research away from home, and gained community through weekly meetings and their summer jumpstart experience.

Zak Peet stands in front of his research poster.

Zak learned how to present research as part of the BUILD PODER undergraduate research training program.

Zak received his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in psychological science from California State University, Northridge. He is currently at Binghamton University in New York pursuing a PhD in Community Research and Action. His personal experience informs his research interests, which lie within the realm of houselessness and substance abuse through the lens of critical race theory (CRT) and intersectionality.

Being a doctoral student has come with some unexpected challenges. Nine months before he moved to New York, Zak was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and after his first year of his PhD program, he underwent a cancer-related surgery. He took a semester off to deal with the complications of the surgery, which included tremendous pain and negative impacts on his mental health. 

In the time since his episodes were published, Zak was able to return to his program and recently published a paper in a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues, despite the self-doubt and stress he continues to manage after such an exhausting ordeal.

Jose Vargas, PhD, and Zak Peet stand together wearing graduation regalia.

Zak (right) stands with Jose Vargas, PhD, who was his advisor while he was a master’s student in psychological science at California State University, Northridge.

He did find encouragement from seeing one of his episodes get shared on X (Twitter) by Diana Winston, a mindfulness meditation teacher and researcher he admires. When Zak first started doing meditation during his recovery to improve his mental health, he came across Winston’s mindfulness teachings online through the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Zak explains how discovering something that combined his passion for meditation and his intellectual curiosity sparked his desire to become a researcher himself, in Episode 9 – “Meditating through imposter syndrome.”

“Hearing that Diana Winston heard about me and retweeted me made me really, really happy,” Zak said. “I almost cried, like, I felt really blessed [because] I truly admire her.”

He hopes that opening up about his life, such as the adverse childhood and tumultuous young adulthood he describes in Episode 8, “Research Isn’t Linear,” provides encouragement to any viewers with similar life experiences who want to achieve their professional goals.

“To go from [my past hardships] to where I am now, I truly believe it's a miracle,” Zak said. “I just hope that at least one person hears my story… and if it’s just one person that is like, picking up what I’m putting down, then that’s cool. 

The main thing is hope.” 

Editor’s note: Zak Peet requested to be referred to by his first name in this article.

Watch all of Zak’s episodes on Enhance Science’s YouTube channel.

Read about other researchers featured in the Become A Researcher series: 

Supported by the National Institutes of Health

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