Graduate Student Philosophy
So, I’ll be up front and say that I have graduated only one graduate student so far, but there are two additional students currently in my lab who are progressing really well. My philosophy for recruiting and training graduate students has been evolving over the last few years. In 2018-2019, I was on sabbatical in Australia, and then the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged those of us doing ‘knowledge work’ to rethink how our daily activities should proceed. Both of these events helped me realize the value and need to train highly motivated graduate students to be independent and self-sufficient.
If you read my previous philosophy on graduate students, my current views remain somewhat similar to those described previously. I continue to refine those concepts as my philosophy evolves. Incoming students can recognize the importance of working independently while being part of a collaborative group of individuals who have a larger goal.
I believe the laboratory research environment has fundamentally changed since 2020. Laboratory research requires lots of experiments which requires spending time physically in the lab. However, a PhD is still a degree in philosophy. Generating, interpreting, and synthesizing data are the essential components of earning a PhD degree. This requires hard work and practice. Some of this work needs to be done in person, some can be done alone at home, and some needs to be done in collaboration with other researchers. Collaborative science can now be achieved through many modes of communication, and any student in my lab needs to embrace a less traditional approach to graduate student life, but one which I think will set someone up for a future scientific career.
One thing graduate students don’t necessarily realize is that earning a philosophy degree requires a lot of reading, writing, and presenting that goes above and beyond the bench experiments and mathematical analyses of data sets. As a thesis mentor, I try to provide you with opportunities to do all of these things, but I can’t do them for you. Earning a PhD requires embracing all these skills.
I outline these key tenets of my philosophy below.
1. Graduate students need to be independent and highly-motivated.
A motivated student wakes up every morning excited to think about their research project because they WANT to think about it. They want to explore the science and test interesting hypotheses. A student should want to work because there are interesting things to do and problems to solve.
2. Graduate students need to be given some room to grow, explore, and fail.
If I tell a student what to do on a daily basis, they will not be equipped to manage and execute projects for future employers independently. New ideas should be justified and thoughtfully considered, even if the hypothesis is wrong. This means reading the literature to create hypotheses, designing solid experiments to test them, and assessing the resources required to execute the study. These are essential components of graduate student education. If you ask my current students, they will tell you that I have routinely asked them for a hypothesis, how they plan to test that hypothesis, and then what resources they will need to do the study. Answering these questions thoughtfully and carefully is key.
3. Graduate students need to be curious and ask questions.
Science is all about asking questions, making observations, and testing hypotheses. I want students to be confident and curious enough that they test something and prove me wrong! Everyone needs to feel comfortable asking everyone questions in the lab. That includes asking me questions. If someone is routinely quiet and not inquisitive in lab meeting, then my lab is not a good fit for them.
4. Graduate students need to be good communicators.
You may be 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 an effective scientist 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. I expect a rotation student will present their project orally to the lab and complete a short paper at the end of your rotation guided by specific questions from me.
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. You cannot be an expert in a single night or after reading a single paper. Becoming an expert takes time, patience, and experiential learning. If you think that reading a couple of papers makes you an expert on a topic, then my lab is not going to be a good place for you. I expect that you will find many of the papers needed to justify your studies. Or, you will accept a few suggestions and start exploring on your own so you can provide a scientifically justified argument.
Overall, I hope you see that I have high standards for my graduate students and hybrid work will remain a staple in our lab. 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. I will not do the work for you. This applies to both experiments at the bench and ‘knowledge work’ that is done at a computer. Learning how to do both of these activities in a self-sufficient and highly motivated way is key to success in my lab.
If you have any further questions about my thoughts on this, I am always happy to share.
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 collaborative 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 complex. There are both pathogen 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.
E. Our lab recently expanded into public health research. I want us to take our scientific knowledge and skills to help the community around us. This became apparent after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think it will continue. This area of research, however, is more nuanced than classical wet-bench basic research studies and requires a slightly different approach. Ongoing flexibility, creativity, and patience are essential.
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 (URP). 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.
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… As a relatively small lab, we need to take advantage of this expertise and learn to ask the right person the right questions. Students and staff need to be comfortable interacting with many different people. This is key because on a given day, there may only be two people from our lab in the building, but you have questions! Additionally, anyone in our lab needs to be willing to communicate by email or by zoom with each other and with me. I work in several different locations with different responsibilities outside of our lab. As a result of this, people need to be willing to work with others to solve most of their problems, and then find me, as needed.
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 find research peers and colleagues.