Lab Philosophies

Graduate Student Philosophy

So, I’ll first admit that I have only had one graduate student so far. While I realize that means I have not had a lot of experience mentoring graduate students, that should not scare you away! First he made it through graduate school and is on to a postdoc! Success! Second, I regularly get support and advice from others with graduate student mentoring experience, which ensures that any student in my lab gets support from a large number of faculty and scientists.

Now you may be wondering, “What does Shelby expect from a student??”

1. Graduate students need to be independently motivated. Sure, I can give you resources, answer your questions, and try to keep you focused, but YOU need to be motivated. What does that mean? To me, a student who is motivated is one who wakes up every morning excited to come think about their research project. It does not mean that I will clock your hours to ensure that you are at lab for 80 hours every week. It means that you are ALWAYS thinking about work because you WANT to think about it. I shouldn’t have to tell you to start working. You should want to work because there are interesting things to do.

2. Graduate students need to be given some room to grow, explore, and fail. I realize that each student wants to get through graduate school. Having a well outlined project is good, but not sufficient. A graduate student needs to craft an independent hypothesis driven project because the student thinks it is a hypothesis worth testing. I want each student in my lab to have the chance to test a hypothesis that might turn out to be incorrect. Learning how to deal with failure is an important part of being an independent scientist. Any student in my lab needs to be given a chance to try something new and, yes, perhaps find out their hypothesis is wrong. This will help a student work through scientific challenges while, ideally, moving the lab in a new and unexpected direction.

3. Graduate students need to be curious and ask questions. Science is all about asking questions, making observations, and testing hypotheses. A fundamental characteristic of a good student is that they are curious enough to ask those questions that will ultimately lead them to make observations and test hypotheses. I want a student to be confident and curious enough that they test something and prove me wrong! I expect it will happen!

4. Graduate students need to be good communicators. I’m sure you are saying to yourself, “I like science because I can sit at a lab bench and do fun experiments and then do some more of them.” Sure, experiments are good, but the current environment requires that an effective scientist needs to communicate their research to the community. This includes both writing and speaking about science. Even if your current communication skills are not perfect, you need to come into my lab with sufficient confidence and a willingness to write and present your research and, importantly, accept criticism from your peers and work to improve. For any potential rotation student – I expect you will present your project orally to the lab and write a 2 page summary of your project at the end of your rotation.

5. Graduate students need to develop into experts. I am the first person to admit that I do NOT know everything. As the PI of the lab, I CANNOT know everything. Instead, each member of my lab needs to be an expert in their specific area. This is especially true for graduate students. You cannot be an expert in a single night or after reading a single paper. Becoming an expert takes time, patience, and experiential learning.

Overall, I hope you see that I have high standards for my graduate students. Your time in graduate school needs to be spent in a way that you can move on to a successful career doing whatever it is you choose to do. Of course, this means that YOU need to work hard to get to that place. If you are not curious, patient, willing to fail, able to communicate, and motivated to get up and think about science every day, then my lab is not the right place for you.

If you have any further questions about my thoughts on this, I am always happy to share.

Research Philosophy

My lab has a fairly diverse research portfolio — sort of like a diverse index fund on the stock market. My philosophy behind this is as follows:

A. There is a lot of interesting science that we can do. I don’t feel like we should limit ourselves to a single research direction. The interesting science questions are always changing, and we need to be flexible to pursue whatever we can at a given time. I’ll admit, flexibility is not necessarily a well-defined skill for many researchers, but being able to change, adjust, and try new things is essential in the current scientific climate.

B. From a funding perspective, it is important that our lab is working on different projects that will generate preliminary data for funding applications from a variety of sources. While I want every component of our lab to be prosperous at all times, that is an unrealistic expectation. Scientific success ebbs and flows naturally, and I need to account for that in our funding portfolio.

C. People in the lab need to have both shared and independent projects. As a lab, we need to be working together on bigger goals, but each individual needs to have an area of expertise and a project that they can own. I cannot be an expert in all of these areas, but the lab, as a team, should be. If we are a more diverse lab, then we can be well-versed in a lot of topics.

D. Infectious disease research is very complex. There are both pathogen factors and host factors to consider. We need to understand a little about virology, microbiology, immunology, and genetics. It is thus impossible to have a narrow focus on one single subject. The only way for us to study an infectious disease is to attack it from many angles, requiring us to be multi-dimensional in our research approach.

Lab Environment Philosophy

As you are certainly aware, you cannot gauge a lab environment until you spend some time in it. But, before coming to spend some time in our lab, you should realize that we are a little different.

1. Our lab is located in University Research Park. This means that we are NOT on campus. Most people find a way to get to and from campus, but it does add a few complexities to your day. Parking is free out at URP, so that is a definite benefit.

2. Our lab is located in the AIDS Vaccine Research Lab (AVRL) in URP. Our building houses five independent faculty members, as well as three service units affiliated with the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. We are not isolated. We share resources, mentorship, and expertise with everyone in our building.

3. Our lab thrives on collaboration. There are about 50 people who work at AVRL who have expertise in genetics, flow cytometry, virology, etc… People working in our lab need to take advantage of this expertise and learn to ask the right person the right questions. This is a benefit because that means we can share our knowledge across individual labs. This also means that students and staff need to be comfortable interacting with many people and asking any of them a question.

Overall, I think working at AVRL is fantastic. There are many skilled researchers here. This gives any student or staff member ample opportunity to interact with experts to get their questions answered. Also, it means there is a large number of people with diverse personalities, giving you an opportunity to learn to collaborate with others.