Some thoughts from the PI…
DBBS first year graduate students, welcome to WashU! This is an exciting time in your academic career, you have an incredible opportunity to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge! But where do you start and which lab do you join? Our guide might be helpful, check it out here: How to Choose a Lab
If you are considering a rotation in my lab, here’s my approach to rotations:
You will be assigned a well-defined project which could be completed in 6-8 weeks, and which will expose you to several of the epigenetic and molecular techniques that we carry out in the lab. Even though we work on genetically engineered mouse models, mouse work can be time consuming and not a practical way to spend your rotation time. Instead, you will probably work with an in vitro system and apply molecular techniques to address an aspect of a bigger project that is ongoing in the lab. You will still have a chance to see some of the mouse work by interacting with the other members of the lab. You are not expected to know how to do everything, you are here to learn! So if experiments don’t work out as expected and you spend your entire rotation troubleshooting, you did not fail your rotation. As long as you do your best, interact with the rest of the team in a positive manner and understand the scientific question you are trying to answer, then you had a successful rotation. The ultimate goal is to see if you are a good fit for the lab, both in terms of scientific interests and personnel dynamics.
Finally, labs are dynamic, they change over time. The science can lead to new directions, people come and go, students graduate, postdocs and technicians move on to other jobs, but one thing stays the same: the PI. Make sure that you are comfortable with the PI as your mentor for the rest of your graduate career, so try to interact with the PI as much as you can. We are a young and small lab, so I am in the lab a lot and continue to do experiments at the bench. If you decide to rotate in our lab, you will interact with me on a daily basis and hopefully we’ll have fun discussing experiments and working together.
Good mentorship is critical for the success of both graduate students and postdocs in an academic lab. Mentoring is important in every profession and training environment, whether that is in academia or the industry. I personally have had great mentors throughout my training who helped me navigate graduate school, a postdoc, the job market and starting my own lab. Now in my new role as a PI, I take that role very seriously and would like to pay forward the good mentoring that I received to my own trainees in the lab. At the same time, I continue to seek advice from more senior colleagues on how to handle the constantly new challenges during this stage of my career. I am deeply invested in the success of my trainees and I am thus committed to providing the most constructive guidance and advice during their tenure in my lab.
I am committed to my trainees’ success because if they do well, the lab does well! A supportive and functional lab environment is critical towards that goal, so I have tried to set up some clear expectations and certain principles which the lab is built on. I encourage collaboration both within and outside the lab, open and clear communication of our results, and sharing of our resources efficiently and effectively in order to enhance and accelerate discovery. As the principal investigator, I am committed to providing the resources trainees need to accomplish their goals, whether that’s financial or moral support. For example, not every trainee wants to or should follow the same career path. There are many rewarding careers outside of academia and I personally know a lot of people that are pursuing non-academic careers after finishing their PhD; they are all very happy with their career choices. I therefore try to provide the resources and kind of mentoring trainees need based to their future career goals.
In return, I expect scientific integrity, honest and hard work, good communication and a collaborative and positive attitude towards your research and colleagues.
Weekly one-on-one meetings
Our lab is small, so I interact daily with everyone in the lab. Despite that, I have weekly informal meetings with everyone to make sure projects stay on tract and that everyone gets a chance to talk to me in private about anything that they want. We discuss progress with projects, troubleshoot experiments and carefully plan and design experiments so that we maximize resources and work efficiently. During these meetings I remind trainees of the big picture and we also try to set specific goals and timelines about projects which helps trainees stay focused on their aims.
We currently have weekly lab meetings with our neighboring lab, the Kaufman lab. This setting provides a larger and more scientifically diverse audience to present to. I believe this helps everyone with their presentation skills and provides better opportunities for feedback on their projects. We also attend the weekly “Stem Cell Meeting” which mainly focuses on hematopoietic projects. Trainees present approximately once per month.
Science moves fast and keeping up with all the literature is not an easy task. In our lab, each member is tasked with monitoring several journals about the latest articles on chromatin, epigenetics and cancer, or the latest technologies in biomedical research. We meet informally once a month and discuss the latest science over coffee and treats! Often we pick a single paper and go over it extensively if it is relevant to our work.
Funding and grant writing
Acquiring funding is an essential part of doing research in an academic institution and it is the PI’s job to write grants and make sure the lab is funded. No one is born a good grant writer. It takes practice to write successful grants. I therefore encourage everyone to start writing research proposals about their projects and apply for fellowships at every stage of their career. Acquiring funding does not only benefit the lab but also the trainees. Grant writing is a great way to organize your thoughts into specific research aims, which in turn helps trainees identify potential pitfalls or errors in their experimental design that can be addressed sooner rather than later.
Trainees are encouraged to submit their work for presentation at national conferences.
Performance evaluations are required by the university. We do this evaluation once a year, but I like to bring up aspects of this performance evaluation during our weekly meetings when appropriate. I try to identify and address problems early on. If for some reason a trainee is not performing as expected I try to identify the problem and its causes and work with the trainee and their graduate school program to resolve the situation.
Stay positive, be happy, do good work
Science is fun and discovering new things is exciting! I like people in my lab to be as passionate about research as I am (or even more). Doing research is more than a job, you have to work hard and be dedicated in order to successfully make it through graduate school or a postdoc. At the same time, trainees need to take some time to take care of themselves outside the lab, take vacation, do what makes them happy! There will be highs and there will be lots of lows. With a positive attitude, hard work, supportive mentors and colleagues, we aim to make the best of it, discover new things and perhaps translate our discoveries to new therapies for the cancer patients that need it so badly.
Finally, stay focused on your goals! 🙂