Friday, January 30, 2009

Women in Neuroscience

On Thursday I attended the first ever meeting of a new group called Emory Women in Neuroscience (E-WIN). Though the title sounds program-specific, it's meant to be an inclusive group for women in the life sciences who have similar interests. Some members of the more established Graduate Women in Psychology (GWIP) group were in attendance to mingle and help us brainstorm where we'd like our new organization to go.

Over the last few years, I've become more and more interested in women's issues as they relate to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or "STEM," as the people in the know like to say). While life science is actually a female-dominated field at the graduate student level (there are three male students and nine female students in my cohort; this is not unusual), women in life science still suffer from discrimination. Additionally, there are more subtle factors that contribute to the large attrition rate or "leaky pipeline" that results in many female students but few female professors. It's clearly in my personal interest to figure out what's going on with that stuff as I plan my own career, and I know many other female scientists who share my dedication to exploring and improving women's issues in STEM. So, when I heard that this group was forming, I leapt at the opportunity to attend the first meeting and become part of a community working toward common goals.

Our meeting took place at the home of a fourth-year neuroscience student. While the group was mainly neuroscience graduate students, I also met students from other programs (pharmacology, nutrition...) and some postdocs. Perhaps most importantly, the group organizers also invited several female faculty to the event, so we were able to mingle and ask questions with a tenured professor, an assistant professor, and a lecturer. 

The group was informal and comfortable. There was food and drink a-plenty. When we arrived we were each given an index card with a question on it for an ice-breaking activity. The questions ranged from serious ("What are the top three problems that science should try to solve over the next few years?") to silly ("If you could have any superpower, what would it be?"). We were supposed to ask people our questions and report back the best answers during the more structured part of the meeting.

While many of the index card topics were worthy of in-depth discussion, the meeting developed a definite focus on work/life balance and family issues in academia. It was fascinating to hear the faculty share their experiences. Two were younger, with pre-elementary school aged children. The third professor at the meeting was older and more established, with a daughter now in college. The conversation covered the "perfect" time to have children (answer: there isn't one), issues involving age and fertility fears, how to team up with a partner to make family and career work, and more. It was wonderful to let these women hand down their wisdom and advice to us, and I found the conversation encouraging as I consider my own goals for career and family in the future.

The women faculty in attendance were amazingly open and honest about their career choices and personal lives, and the intersection between the two. I think the informal structure of the meeting (a circle of women sitting on comfy chairs, wine in hand) made it easier to have these conversations. Everyone seemed very comfortable with the arrangement and I got a distinct vibe of camaraderie, empathy, "sisterhood," whatever you'd like to call it, between different members of the group. It was almost like group therapy. Except therapy is done the goal of changing and improving the person in therapy -- we're trying to change the world. (Although, there is certainly room for further personal growth in most of us. I think an organization like this can help shape our individual strengths as well as institutional reform.)

After a few hours, it was time for us to all go home. We did go over some topics for future meetings and events before the evening ended. My own suggestion was perhaps one of the more detail-oriented ones -- I want to learn exactly what sorts of policies our university has in place to support working/studying women, and how we can improve upon them. I also want to know how the department is recruiting/hiring new faculty, and how we can make sure that women are fairly considered for faculty positions. After meeting with the faculty at our E-WIN group, I'm even more convinced that students need successful women role models and mentors. Like most universities, ours could stand to improve in that respect. 

After a very successful first meeting, I'm left feeling energized and optimistic about this organization. I really want to feel involved with the university at more than just the level of graduate student lab slave; I think it's important to do what I can to work for positive change. Happily, Emory seems fairly responsive to student concerns (at least, within my program). If we keep working at it, maybe we can change our world.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Careers Outside of Academics: Pharmaceutical Industry

When I was choosing between graduate programs, I was careful to look into the career development resources provided by each of the schools that had accepted me. I'm still in the early stages of my scientific career, and like many graduate students I am hesitant to consider the academic track of graduate student --> postdoc --> assistant professor --> tenured professor as my sole option. Indeed, among current female graduate students in particular, only 27% state that their career goal is to become a research professor, according to a recent study by Mary Ann Mason et al. And so, when I received an invitation to a career seminar titled "Careers Outside of Academics: Discussions about looking beyond the University," I decided to go. 

The topic of this particular seminar was careers in industry. Speaking were Dr. Pam Tannenbaum, an Emory neuroscience PhD who now works for Merck, and Dr. Dennis Choi, director of Emory's Comprehensive Neuroscience Center and former executive vice president of neuroscience at Merck. Both of them have personal experience working in academia as well as industry, so I found the discussion to be quite enlightening. Here I'll try to note my thoughts about the discussion, with the caveat that I don't speak for Drs. Tannenbaum and Choi, but merely use their talks as a jumping-off point for my own ideas.

Dr. Tannenbaum gave an informative and entertaining PowerPoint presentation on her experiences transitioning from academia to industry, describing some of the key similarities and differences between what she jokingly called "The Ivory Tower" and "The Dark Side." I hadn't thought too much about what it would be like to work as a for-profit scientist, but in a way there are some important parallels. Industry scientists generally receive their research project assignments from higher-ups in the company, based on market research and other factors that determine what new drugs or biotechnology products have a shot at being successful. Instinctively I rankle at this thought -- we should pursue The Truth, not whatever new compound will sell for the most money! However, academic research does not exist in an economic vacuum: our research costs money, too. So we have to hunt for grants, which necessitates tailoring our research toward projects that someone considers worth funding. Of course, there is funding to be had for basic science discoveries that may not immediately point toward any concrete application, but a lot of the people in my department are funded by the NIH. And what does the NIH want? Well, they want research that will help us understand and improve upon the human health. They may not be geared toward making the most profitable discoveries, but they are reluctant to fund redundant studies, or studies with no discernible relationship to medicine. This was something that I hadn't thought about much before. I'm not convinced that pharmaceutical companies are idealists working toward improving healthcare, of course -- unlike the NIH, they're also trying to turn a profit. But, ultimately, it's hard to get anyone to fund science just because you think it's cool -- you have to convince them that your results might be of use to somebody, somehow.

Another thing that Dr. Tannenbaum discussed was the concept of work/life balance in industry versus academia. She described the differences between her lifestyle and that of her husband, who is currently an assistant professor. The overall theme seemed to be that her job is more structured, but more conducive to leaving work at work; his schedule is more flexible, but he's constantly bringing work home. Her analogy was that her industry career leads to some acute stress -- working hard to meet a deadline imposed by the higher-ups -- while her husband's academic career incurs chronic stress, i.e. the feeling that there's always something work-related that he should be doing. (I hope their family's overall stress levels will drop after his tenure review!) The combination of their two career tracks seems to work fairly well for them, based on what we discussed at the seminar. While she's at her 9-5, he has the flexibility to deal with childcare emergencies and so on; when she's home in the evening she can focus on family issues while he's in his office until the wee hours. I'm hoping that by the time I have to deal with issues of family/work balance myself, a similar arrangement will be possible. My SO is an IT professional, so we don't have an academic two-body problem, which Dr. Tannenbaum cited as one reason why she chose to transition into industry. Ideally, if and when this becomes a factor in our lives, we could arrange our work schedules to complement each other. IT workers have the ability to telecommute, which is more difficult for bench-slaving scientists. Scientists in general seem to be laid back about the actual hours one spends in the lab, as long as the work gets done. An industry scientist seems to have less wiggle room in this regard, but Dr. Tannenbaum did mention that Merck has been implementing "core hours" of late, allowing people some flexibility in when they come and go as long as they are present during certain hours at which meetings are held. 

Other things that I hadn't known about before but wasn't necessarily surprised to hear: The money in industry isn't that much better than in academia, at least at the staff scientist level. Once you transition into industry, it's fairly difficult to go back to academia (you're "tainted"). Industry is often less "political" than academia (after all, you're all following orders from the same bosses -- there's room to come up with a pet theory and defend it acrimoniously when the entire company has the same goals). 

After Dr. Tannenbaum's talk, Dr. Choi spoke for a few minutes about his own experiences. The key point that he brought up was that it's often impossible to plan one's career trajectory in advance. When he left academia for Merck, he hadn't been looking for a job, but he received an offer for a position that appealed to him and decided to pursue it. Similarly, when he left industry to come to Emory, he hadn't planned on making such a transition, but it worked out well in the end. He said that his experiences in both realms of science left him uniquely prepared for his current job, although he wouldn't have guessed, years ago, that he'd end up here. Dr. Tannenbaum also described her industry job as kind of falling into her lap; she received a cold call from an industry recruiter while she was working in academia and decided to go to the interview just for the heck of it, then ended up liking what she saw. So, I suppose, I shouldn't worry about it too much, because the right job will eventually find me? Well, that may not be the intended lesson. What does come through is that there are many options out there, and you can make lots of them work for you.

Thankfully I have another five years or so of graduate school left, so I have time to consider this further. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to attending more career seminars.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shoe Post!

Science bloggers (mostly female, but a few dudes) have recently begun to follow the trend of posting pictures of their shoes. Much of the credit for this goes to Dr. Isis, who inspires a range of strong emotions in fellow lady scientists by embracing her girly shoe-loving side in addition to her badass physiologist side. As a young woman embarking on a scientific career, I'm currently struggling to find the right balance between these things myself. We scientists can wear many hats, sometimes -- and many shoes!

My normal lab attire consists of jeans, a t-shirt, and my trusty sneakers, pictured above. They're comfortable and provide full foot coverage, in compliance with OSHA regulations. Plus, I happen to think Puma makes some fairly stylish casual shoes that are appropriate for things like bench work and hoofing it across campus to buy lunch during 30-minute washes.

However, from time to time I get bit by the shoe bug and prowl around on sites like Zappos and Endless for deals on the sexiest shoes I can muster. Then I proceed to wear them about once a year, when I have an occasion for heels that make me 5'11". This week, I bought some new work shoes for my SO and couldn't resist adding a clearance special for myself to the order:

(Please pardon the sock lines -- I was wearing the sneakers most of the day and tried these on when I got home.) The green snakeskin pumps pictured above can currently be found for $59.90 at Endless. They're actually pretty comfortable, given the heel height -- the leather is soft and has give to it, and the inside is lightly padded. So go on with your bad selves. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rotation #2 Diary: Week 3

Finished my third week of the rotation. My IP experiments... kind of worked. I was able to detect a faint band, not significantly better than just doing a regular western blot. However, doing the IP does make the blot come out a lot cleaner, so I'm going to try again next week. I'll tinker with the protein concentration and antibody concentration a little bit to try to maximize the amount of my desired protein in the end. And, I'll try using rat protein lysates instead of mouse protein lysates, since the antibody we're using was raised against the human protein, which has a greater degree of homology with rat than with mouse. 

Even if I can't get these blots to work, it's possible that the antibody may be able to detect my protein in histological specimens. If the blots fail me now, I will probably move on to immunohistochemistry to see what I can see. I've done a lot of that in the past. I have to say, though, I enjoy the precision of the more purely molecular techniques. Messing around with little pieces of tissue and mounting them on a slide is more annoying than working with nitrocellulose membranes. Although, I think for an ideal project I'd be doing a little of both -- studying protein/protein interactions, but also studying anatomical characteristics of the protein (or with mutations of that protein). Maybe even doing some behavioral studies or something, for the big picture. It's rewarding to get a super clean result in molecular biology, but it's also rewarding to actually see what's going on in an animal, either by looking at a representative brain section or observing a behavioral phenotype. Or doing physiology, I suppose, although I have absolutely no experience in that, and it seems like most e-phys people specialize in doing that and little else, because the technique is so involved.

Classes are in full swing, now. I had my first quiz in Cellular and Developmental Neuroscience this week, and both of my weekly seminars have started up, too. There are also lab meetings to attend, and meetings with my rotation adviser to plan. With all the other stuff going on I find myself working "late" (past 6 PM) several days a week, while a lot of my classmates seem to spend hardly any time at the lab. I guess it works out, though, since my lab time involves a lot of waiting around and doing other things. Even though I have to be physically present, I don't have to spend the entire day standing at my bench. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rotation #2 Diary: Week 2

I finished the second week of my second rotation. I'm a little late writing this rotation diary, but I've been working on some other assignments, including a short essay for my graduate seminar that I think might be blog-worthy when it's finished. (The trouble is that it's supposed to be only 500 words. I've cut it down to about 650. It's hard to be concise when you know a lot about the topic!) 

Week 2 of my rotation was dedicated to tweaking the experiments that I performed during Week 1. I repeated my western blots a few times. First, I used the original protein lysates in larger amounts, thinking that perhaps my first blots failed to detect the protein of interest because it's not very abundant. I still didn't see anything, though. So, on the advice of the postdoc who has been training me, I made some fresh protein lysates from wild-type mice. I had never done that before, so it was a good chance to learn a new technique. I had to look up some diagrams on the internet to figure out where, exactly, a mouse's pancreas is, but I think I did a good job in the end. I've always had pretty good hands for dissections, and while it may sound morbid, I think it's interesting to take things apart. 

We thought the fresh samples might be helpful in case our protein of interest was being degraded in some way over time. However, when I ran the new samples on a gel the very next day, I still didn't see very good bands when I probed with our antibodies for this protein. One of the blots had pretty high background, the other showed almost no signal. I washed the high-background blot over the weekend and I'm re-probing it today to see if I get a better signal to noise ratio this time, but I'm not feeling particularly optimistic. Oh well -- that's why there's a "re" in "research!" I'll keep trying new things to find this wily protein.

Our plan for this week is to purify the protein from my samples by immunoprecipitation, then run a new gel and probe for it there. I've never done an IP before, either, so I'm excited to do more new things. And even though my experiments haven't been going so well, I still derive some satisfaction from methodically planning how to improve things with the next set of experiments. And, of course, I appreciate those experiments that give me blocks of free time for writing blog posts! I should probably finish this one up now, though, and get back to work on that essay for my seminar. Tune in next week to see if my IP worked!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Order of the Science Scouts

I first saw this site a while ago, but now that I have a science-themed blog I've decided it's time to award myself some merit badges. This is very exciting because I was never a Girl Scout (despite eating many of their cookies) and hadn't earned any sort of badge before.

This "talking science" badge is required of all scouts. My friends would probably agree that I talk about science to the point of being a little odd. Even my scientist friends! When we're milling around after a neuroscience lecture I often turn the conversation to some unrelated science topic (such as, for example, the evolutionary biology of duck phalluses), forcing them to wonder where I find the free time to absorb these bizarre facts. I'd like to thank the internet for helping me freak these people out on a regular basis.
The "I blog about science" badge. Pretty self explanatory given that it is posted here on my blog, which is about science. I'd like to expand the scope of this blog to include not just stories from my own graduate school experience, but also some blogging on peer-reviewed research. (Once the semester starts again I'll have to write paper critiques for my class, anyway. Ah, blogging your homework... killing two birds with one rather tedious stone.)

Haven't set my hair on fire yet. Although, come to think of it, it might be in my best interest to invest in some barrettes or something.

I do have some experience in sexing fruit flies (and finding virgins -- these are defined as fruit flies who have hatched so recently that they haven't yet had time to get knocked up), as pictured on the badge. However, my friends know that my true area of expertise is as a mouse OB/GYN. I can stick a probe into a mouse's vagina with the best of them. (This is done to check for vaginal plugs which form after mating. Plug-checking determines the day of fertilization, which is important if your experiment involves any treatment or collection of specimens at a specific stage of embryonic development.) I can also roughly gauge how pregnant a mouse is by how fat she's looking, and I know that if you want your mice to get busy, you should put the female into the male's cage, rather than vice versa -- the male is less shy when he's on his home turf. 

I have touched a human brain with my own hands. It was not a living brain, and I was wearing gloves, but I still think that's pretty awesome. We studied brains from the cadavers in the medical school's anatomy lab for my Neuroanatomy and Systems Neuroscience class. They came whole and sectioned. I suffered many a formaldehyde headache during that segment of the class. Then I had to take an exam based on identifying different brain regions in human specimens. 

Worship me -- I've published in Science. I was 24th author, so maybe the badge should have an asterisk beside it or something. 

After spending a few years working with lobsters and crabs as a research organism, I have retained a special place for crustaceans in my heart. This is especially ironic when you consider that I have a potentially deadly shellfish allergy. I own what some might consider to be an excessive amount of lobster-themed memorabilia -- living in Boston for six years makes it almost too easy to acquire such things. And I'm always in the market for more! I also like cephalopods, as pictured on the badge. I can't eat them, either. 

Just about anyone who's put time in at a wet lab has worked with acids, even if only to pH things. Indeed, I was dissolving things in hydrochloric acid back in my high school AP Chemistry days. Some of my more experimentally-minded classmates decided to test the effects of acid immersion on a cockroach that they found (I went to high school in Florida, so test subjects were plentiful). I was not privy to their results. I am, however, familiar with the effects of sulfuric acid on one's pant legs, thanks to some unfortunate splattering in my undergraduate organic chemistry lab. 

I've been known to refer to my graduate program as "the neuroscience frat" for our propensity to close down any graduate school event that involve free drinks, the fact that we've purchased entire kegs for departmental mixers, and the more advanced candidates' fearsome skills at beer pong. That being said, I am usually smart enough not to go back to the lab after partaking of these festivities. Usually. 

On occasions when I've been working with bacteria or with human blood and/or saliva samples, I have washed my hands before using the restroom. And then again afterward. I tend to wash periodically throughout the day, even when I'm not eating or excreting. If you ever need some hand cream, your friendly neighborhood life scientist probably has a stash to ward off the skin chapping that this can cause. 

Friday, January 9, 2009

Rotation #2 Diary: Week 1

As a first year PhD student, I'm currently working on one of my three required laboratory rotations. The purpose of a rotation is to "test drive" a potential mentor's lab before choosing where to do one's dissertation research. It's also a good way to pick up useful new techniques from a lab, even if you don't end up joining that group. 

I did my first rotation over the summer and was there full time. For the first week or two, I was pretty helpless and needed help from the postdoc who was assigned to train me every time I did anything. I also spent a lot of time reading papers and trying to get a sense of what the lab studied, because I couldn't start on some experiments for a while (such is the way of mouse-based research... sometimes the breeding schedules don't cooperate). After that time, though, I really got into the swing of things and really enjoyed my project. I got some cool data. My mentor wrote me a good evaluation. So, I came out of that experience having learned a lot and feeling like I'd be happy joining that group later on, but also excited to see what was in store for my next rotation.

I'm on my second rotation now, and although I've only put in one week, I'm already really impressed by the usefulness of rotations as a strategy for choosing a lab. Noting the similarities and the differences between the two places I've worked so far has really helped me to think about what I want out of my graduate career, what kind of experiments I like to do, and so on. I haven't decided where I want to do my third (and possibly last; I have the option to do another one) rotation yet; I'm going to wait until I'm done or nearly done with my second to see if I'm inspired to go in any particular direction by my current project. I thought it might be useful to keep a rotation diary to help keep track of what I'm doing so I can look back on it later. This should help me reflect on this rotation experience as I look toward my next one, and also as I look back on all of them when it's time to choose a lab to join. Plus, I can keep track of what I've been up to, what techniques I've learned, and so on so that when I have to write my rotation summary I don't need to pore over a chemical-stained lab notebook (though I have one of those, too, which goes into more tedious and potentially sensitive detail).

So, my current project. This lab uses a lot of molecular biology techniques, some of which were familiar to me. This week was mostly dedicated to western blots, which I've done before, so I was able to hit the ground running and do experiments basically on my own for much of the week after minimal instruction. I didn't really get any useful data, but... that's not necessarily what rotations are for. 

I'm doing some experiments to characterize a protein that I won't name, since the lab hasn't published anything about it yet (though others have). I was given a bunch of samples derived from rat tissue and told to see if I could detect the protein via western blot. I learned how to calculate the protein concentrations of the samples by doing a BCA protein assay, which was cool. I got to make pretty color-changing solutions in a 96-well plate, and use the plate reader! After calculating the protein concentrations, I was able to come up with a fairly accurate loading scheme for my gel. In the lab where I learned to do westerns, we'd run new samples on a gel and do a Coomassie stain to assess relative protein levels basically by eyeballing it, then adjust the loading using our best guess. Doing the protein assay is a lot more precise. So I loaded and ran my gels and probed them with the antibody for my protein of interest, and... it didn't work. I didn't get any bands. So then I washed the blots and reprobed for actin as a control, and the actin was all over the place. 

Whaaa? But my loading was determined by such an accurate method! So, then I learned that crazy actin level differences happen when you're using samples from different tissues, even if they have the same total protein concentration. I'd never compared such disparate tissues in one blot before. My previous western experiments usually used cell extracts that were all made from the same cell line and thus good controls for each other. Thinking about it now, it makes sense to me that say, skeletal muscle would have way more actin than ovary tissue, but I'm just used to seeing actin as a loading control so I freaked out when I saw the wildly different actin levels on my blot. The purpose of this experiment is to see whether my protein of interest is found in any of these tissues (since I'm in a neuro program, we of course hope to find it in the brain, but it could be elsewhere, too) and I guess we'll just trust the BCA assay (confirmed by eyeballing the blot after staining with Ponceau Red) to show that the loading is even. Of course, this is all moot for now, since I couldn't detect the protein of interest at all, in any of my samples. 

Our current theory is that this protein is finicky and easily degraded. The postdoc who's helping me with my rotation says that she's successfully gotten results from this antibody, but only on really fresh samples from cultured cells or brain lysates. The tissue extracts I used were made in 2005 and have been stored in the freezer ever since. So, next week we'll dissect some mice and make fresh samples to see if my antibody can detect anything then. I'll also try running a new gel using the old samples with double the loading, in case the problem is just that this protein exists at very low levels. Although it's frustrating when experiments don't work, I like having some ideas about how to troubleshoot. These experiments seem a little more methodical than some of the stuff I've worked on previously (neuroanatomical studies in different mouse models of disease), a little easier to tweak when things go wrong, so I'm feeling optimistic that even if I don't get the result I'm looking for, I'll learn something useful by troubleshooting and testing things. It's been cool meeting with the postdoc and exchanging ideas on what we can try next. 

I'm happy that I started this rotation early. My classes don't begin until late next week, so I've had some time to spend entire days in the lab. I think this project should lend itself well to my class schedule, though, since I can easily come in before class, load a gel, leave it running while I go to lecture, and come back after class to transfer/block/probe and so on. On days when I don't have class, I can use the down time during westerns to study, or to work on other projects related to the rotation. 

Anyhow, I will try to keep up this diary as the semester goes on.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

MS vs PhD

There's a post over at ScienceWomen today about grad school decision making: How do you know whether to get an MS or a PhD? Should you apply to MS programs separately and get a PhD later? How do you choose a grad program? The question comes from an environmental science student, a field outside my area of expertise (to the extent that I can be considered to have any area of expertise), but I thought I'd share my personal story of how I earned an MS separate from my PhD program and what that's like.

As you may have deduced, I am a neuroscience PhD student. I earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience from Brandeis University, which is somewhat rare for having a neuroscience major and even rarer for allowing undergrads to earn a master's alongside their bachelor's degree (a dual BS/MS program, in my case). As such, my master's degree experience differed from a stand-alone MS program, but I was required to take graduate-level classes and to complete and defend a research thesis. This didn't seem too different from what my non-MS classmates were doing, to be honest. Many neuroscience classes at Brandeis contained undergraduate juniors and seniors in addition to first and second year graduate students, and neuroscience majors had the option to complete a research project and write a thesis to achieve departmental honors. The main difference was that I was required to take a set number of the upper level classes (all of which still contained undergrads) and I had to do an oral defense. Therefore, I feel that I would have been equally prepared, academically speaking, to go for my PhD even if I hadn't gotten my MS beforehand. I mainly did the BS/MS program because I had the time -- I attended summer school for a few years, so I had room in my schedule to take the extra classes without overloading any given semester. If I hadn't done the BS/MS I could have graduated early or triple majored (but Brandeis doesn't allow triple majors; I settled for two majors -- biology and neuroscience -- and a minor in classical studies). 

When I got to my PhD program, I didn't find my classes to be significantly more difficult than the ones that upper level undergraduates take at Brandeis. I've only been here for one semester, of course, but my program at least is cognizant of the varying skill levels that students have in key subjects and has tried not to blow our minds too badly. We study a lot, but if unlike me you come into grad school with good study habits, you'll be okay. Of the 13 students in my PhD cohort, only two of us have an MS. Now, if my undergraduate performance had been worse (and it wasn't all that awesome to begin with, to be honest -- I graduated with a 3.4 GPA, which is good but not likely to wow anyone in and of itself), it might have been a good idea to apply to MS programs. An MS program (probably unfunded) would be more likely to accept a student with a borderline academic background and give them a chance. This, in turn, allows the student to make good grades and impress professors at the MS program, which helps them to be a more competitive PhD applicant if that is their eventual goal. 

But, in my opinion, it is not necessary to apply for an MS if your goal is a PhD and you're just worried that you're not ready for graduate coursework. But what about research? Graduate school is primarily about research, and not all college students have the opportunity to do research at their undergraduate institution. If someone isn't sure whether he or she is any good at research, or likes doing research, or is allergic to latex gloves, should he or she start with the "baby step" of an MS program?

When I was getting my BS/MS, my advisors told me that I shouldn't expect the MS to make a big difference in getting into PhD programs. At the time, I wasn't sure that I even wanted to get a PhD, so I didn't take this into account. What does make a difference is research experience, and in the process of getting my MS, I got research experience. However, I also got research experience as an undergraduate research assistant before I started the BS/MS program, and as a laboratory technician after I graduated. I would argue that working as a lab tech is preferable to going for an unfunded MS, if your primary concern is getting research experience. A tech has to do a lot of lab drudgery, but this sort of job provides a dedicated research geek with the opportunity to work on independent projects and publish papers, if the PI is willing to support such endeavors. And unlike an unfunded MS, a lab tech job won't put you into debt. 

I worked as a lab tech at Children's Hospital Boston for two years after graduating with my BS/MS. The job had its ups and downs, but I learned a lot about what it's like to be in the lab full time, which is how things are during the later years of a PhD program. I gained many new skills, and even got my name on a Science paper! (I was the least important author -- the last person before the list of collaborating PIs -- but hey, it counts for something, right?) When I applied to PhD programs, I was able to write intelligently about my research projects in my statement of purpose and provide a letter of recommendation from my PI. These things were far more important to the admissions committee than the MS degree on my CV. 

So, my MS didn't contribute too much to my preparation for a PhD program. Did it help me get a job? Well... maybe. I did receive several offers when I was applying to lab tech positions in academia, industry, and at non-profit research hospitals. I'm not convinced that the MS is what impressed them, though -- I think I would have been a strong candidate without it, given my three years of undergraduate research experience, decent academic performance, and the fact that I interview well. When I came to Children's, I was the only tech I knew with a master's. I made the same salary as everyone else. Had I worked in industry, I probably could have qualified for a higher starting salary (say, Research Assistant II instead of Research Assistant I) and may have had more potential for advancement than someone with just a bachelor's, but I can't be certain as I didn't receive any formal offers from industry employers. (They took too long -- by the time one company wanted to set up a final interview, I had accepted the Children's job.) A friend who works in industry is currently getting his MS on the company's dime, slowly but surely, so some employers do value the degree and use it to determine candidacy for higher-level jobs.

After working as a tech, though, I decided I wanted to go back to school. I saw minimal potential for advancement, in terms of "creative control" and independence, if I didn't. I wanted the ability to set the direction of my research projects. And, I wanted more flexibility in my career choices. Not all PhDs become academics -- some work in industry, some work for institutions like the NIH, some go into law, some go into public policy, some take up science writing and/or publishing, and so on. People with their MS can do some of these things, but some preliminary research on the subject led me to believe that I'd have more options, and better options, if I got my PhD. This may not be the ideal path for everyone, of course. Some people become research specialists and spend their lives at the bench, using their expert skills and not stressing out over where the lab's funding will come from, and they love it. Being promoted above a certain level in science usually leads to detachment from the day-to-day routine of pipetting and centrifuging, which can be sad for people who have great hands for research and not-so-great heads for bureaucracy. 

Therefore, I would advise any potential graduate student in the life sciences to consider what it is that they want out of their career. Meet different kinds of scientists and see if their jobs appeal to you, then figure out how to get those jobs. Working in your field for a while between undergrad and graduate school can be a great way to meet these people and figure this stuff out, in addition to making you a better candidate if you decide to apply to schools. Learn what you like and don't like about science -- do you love to work with your hands? do you love learning new things and teaching them to other people? do you love using really expensive equipment? do you love the freedom of being your own boss? Only after you know what it is that you want can you formulate your plan to make it happen.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Studying Tactics

I have something to confess: I'm kind of a slacker. Sure, I made it into a PhD program, which would indicate some minimum degree of competence. But I hate to study. I like to learn -- I like to attend lectures, conferences, and seminars; I like to read books and articles; I like to have conversations about work with my peers; I like to teach my non-scientist friends about what I do. I just hate to study. In high school and college, I managed to achieve satisfactory grades without spending a lot of time doing homework or studying (although I'm sure I would have done better if I'd put in more effort). Now that I'm in graduate school, I find myself surrounded by lots of very smart people, and I have to work hard to keep up. Thankfully, my graduate coursework is focused on the subject that interests me the most, i.e. neuroscience, so it's fun to learn new things in class and discuss the lectures with my classmates. Studying is still a drag, though.

Having resolved to buckle down and study harder for graduate school than I've studied for anything else in my life, I found it interesting to note what works for me and what doesn't work. In high school and college, I didn't have a laptop computer, so I always took notes on paper. When I started grad school I bought some looseleaf paper and a binder and some color-coded dividers, as per usual, and lugged a lot of papers back and forth to my classes for a few weeks. I would diligently print my professors' class notes that were posted online in advance, then fill in more details during lecture. I even took notes in multiple colors. But... it didn't really work. 

Most of my professors rely heavily on PowerPoint presentations in lectures. This makes a lot of sense when discussing neuroanatomy or biochemistry, allowing students to refer to detailed photographs and diagrams during class discussions. However, printing out these notes in advance on my black and white printer (and resizing the slides so that I wasn't printing ~80 pages per day!) decreased the utility of the images in the slides, and sometimes made color-coded or small text difficult to read. I also found it hard to carry around the reams of printed and handwritten notes that I generated after just a few weeks -- my carefully organized binder grew immensely thick and heavy. I tried to conserve paper by taking notes from assigned reading on the back of the PowerPoint printouts for each lecture (some of my classmates were astonished by the bulk of my notes taken from our biochemistry textbook), but I ended up with many, many pages nonetheless. 

Therefore, after my first exam, I decided to bring my beloved 12" Apple Powerbook G4 laptop to class with me. (I am sad that newer Mac laptops are not as tiny and cute as this one, as it will need to be replaced sooner than I'd like.) I downloaded the .ppt lecture note files for each class -- sometimes only minutes before class started, thanks to the miracle of campus-wide WiFi -- and took notes either in the .ppt itself or in a separate file. This proved advantageous for several reasons: 1) My small laptop is no heavier than a full binder, and takes up less space in my bag! 2) I can type much faster than I can write longhand, and can take legible notes on my computer while looking at my professor rather than at what I am writing. 3) Taking notes in this fashion gives me as much room as I need to annotate each slide in a presentation, which is not always possible on a hard copy.

After a few more weeks passed in the new age of note-taking, I was ready to sit for my second round of exams. Studying for biochemistry was not much of an issue, as we switched to open-note exams midway through the semester. My incredibly detailed PowerPoint notes were very helpful for these, as I could refer to them throughout while I was filling out the exam document on my computer. Studying for my neuroanatomy and systems neuroscience class, however, proved to be more difficult. It was hard for me to retain information from my typed notes just by reading them over and over again on a screen. I also underestimated the sheer volume of information that my notes contained, and didn't give myself enough time to study it all before the exam. Cramming: it is not your friend.

When I was unsatisfied with my performance on my second neuro exam, I blamed myself and my sub-optimal study habits. There had to be a way to combine the new note-taking method with a systematic study routine that would help me retain the information I had so judiciously typed.

A week before the next neuro exam, I resolved to synthesize my lecture notes into something more manageable, and convert them into a format that was easier for me to study. I gave myself at least two hours to do this for each lecture (the exam was derived from the content of about ten 90-minute lectures) and forced myself to create a one-page (front and back) handwritten outline for each lecture topic. Some of these lecture notes encompassed dozens and dozens of slides. I had to read through all the material, decide what was important, and figure out how the important concepts related to each other. I drew diagrams of disparate brain regions with arrows indicating information flow between them. I made charts outlining the parts of the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis. I listed important morphological characteristics of different neuronal cell types. 

After reading and rereading my original notes and funneling them into one-page versions of each lecture, I used the outlines to study. It was easier for me to learn the important facts contained in those ten outlines than to spend ages reviewing every single point I included in the original version. I could also carry them around for study in laptop-incompatible places, like the bus. (My poor laptop has a defunct battery, so it must be plugged in while I use it.) By forcing myself to think deeply about each topic and summarize it in my own words, then rehearsing the key points that I highlighted, I was able to learn a lot of material without last minute panic. 

And lo, on the following exam, I earned a much better grade! This study routine worked well for the rest of the semester, and had the bonus effect of making me feel superior when some of my classmates described their all-night cramming sessions. We'll have to see how things hold up when I start my new classes and lab rotations this spring.