Lab Philosophies

Graduate Student Philosophy

So, I’ll first admit that I have graduated only one graduate student so far, but there are two additional students currently in my lab who are progressing nicely. 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 refined some of those concepts in this new version of my philosophy so that incoming students can recognize the importance of working independently, while being part of a collaborative group of individuals who have a larger goal.  I outline these key tenets of my philosophy below.

1. Graduate students need to be independent and highly-motivated. 

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 thinking about work because you WANT to think about it. You want to explore the science and test hypotheses. I shouldn’t have to tell you to start working. You should want to work because there are interesting things to do and you want to get the answers.  

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 and finish with their PhD. However, if I tell a student what to do on a daily basis, they may graduate, but they will not be equipped to manage and execute projects for future employers. This means that a student needs to be given a chance to try something new and, yes, perhaps find out their hypothesis is wrong. However, these new ideas should be justified and thoughtfully considered. This means reading the literature to create a hypothesis, designing solid experiments to test the hypothesis, and assessing the resources required to execute the study. This type of work is not trivial, but I think they 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. 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! For this past summer, we have been having lab meetings where I ask each staff member a question, but the final act is that the lab needs to ask ME two questions.  Why do this?  I want to make sure that everyone feels 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. 

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 complete a short paper at the end of your rotation. This paper will be guided by specific questions from me. You need to be able to respond to that question by presenting your arguments persuasively, coherently, and concisely. 

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. 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 be able to then go 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. 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. The amount of time you spend in lab or at the computer will change as you move through grad school and be different for each individual. 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.

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 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 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.

E. Our lab has recently been expanding 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 much more nuanced than our classical basic research studies.  It will require ongoing flexibility and creativity as we extend in this direction.

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. Lastly, as the people working in these areas may be physically located in different places, students and staff need to have the confidence to reach out to others by email or zoom. That has become increasingly important since early 2020, and I imagine it will remain an element or our work environment for awhile.

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.