Graduate training: Choosing a n00b vs. a greybeard
I hope that you have been to BenchFly, the brainchild of Dr. Alan Marnett, third-generation chemist and chemical biologist. Founded in Cambridge, MA, in 2009, Benchfly is a highly-functional and beautifully-designed site for the practicing scientist, directed primarily toward those developing their scientific chops (and for more, uh, senior folks looking for a methods tune-up).
Based around a core of open-access instructional video protocols on techniques from how to prepare a sample for NMR to siRNA transfection to how to unlock a jammed Beckman J2-21 centrifuge, BenchFly also addresses cultural aspects of the scientific life with the input of a growing community of interdisciplinary scientists that range from undergraduates to department chairs.
Chemists will fully appreciate the video on how to pronounce “Hoechst” after hearing it mangled by American biologists who use the company’s fluorescent intercalating DNA dyes (solution: ask a German scientist!). And at the conclusion of their nicely-crafted mission and values statement comes this:
“We believe the only thing more powerful than Chemistry is Chuck Norris. Period.”
BenchFly also has had contests for best design of a flavors.me personal lab landing page and routinely catalyzes career discussions through their blog. On Monday, Alan put up a post asking a crucial question of relevance to the first-year graduate student:
If you were picking a lab, would you be more or less likely to work for an assistant professor (eg, non-tenured)?
The post ends with that as a survey question but Alan’s analogy to a racetrack outing with his old lab nicely frames the question. The discussion there has been fairly balanced and the survey results are currently running with a slight 52-48 percent edge for the benefits of working with an assistant professor over a tenured full professor (apologies to my women colleagues for use of the term “greybeard” but I use it pejoratively to reflect my dismay at the current paucity of women in senior scientific positions).
I picked a n00b
I can offer my own perspective at 25 years out from choosing a freshly-minted assistant professor who wasn’t even at my graduate institution when I came to interview. My mentor, Tom Rowe, came to the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Florida from a postdoc with Leroy Liu at Johns Hopkins. There, he worked to identify type II DNA topoisomerases as the target of anticancer drugs like doxorubicin (Adriamycin), the epipodphyllotoxins etoposide and teniposide, and the experimental aminoacridines. It was in Tom’s lab was where I first gained my molecular biology skills while also bearing witness to The Awesome Power of Natural Products.
I’ve been playing phone-tag with Tom over the last couple of weeks so I wanted to write this post before we had a chance to catch up – this way my recollections will not be clouded by his perceptions of those wonderful old days.
The advantage of working for a fresh, new assistant professor was that he was at the top of his research game – he had great papers in JBC and Science and possessed the fire and motivation to do what it takes to get that first grant.
What I remember most and value most highly was the intense, personal attention I got from Tom during our brainstorming sessions in his office where an hour could become three hours. And once Tom accepted me into his laboratory, I knew that he had a vested interest in my success. Not that large labs don’t – as Tom’s first graduate student with only a senior technician he inherited as the other person in the lab, I knew that I wasn’t going to get lost in the shuffle.
As the only grad student in lab for a year-and-a-half or so, I was the one who got to go to meetings whenever funds became available. I went to two society meetings and one Gordon Conference each of my first two years with Tom. Whatever one may have lost in networking by working in a small, new lab, I made it up at meetings – especially the Gordon Conference on Cancer Chemotherapy.
Well, everything had to start almost from scratch. I did not have the luxury of being a cog in a well-oiled machine. As I look back now, being the first graduate student gave me some practice when starting my own lab – like figuring out which of the 17 versions of EDTA in the Sigma catalog I needed. I developed enzyme assays from the literature alone, learned to purify and crystallize my own substrates, and implement a two-dimensional gel electrophoresis workflow before immobilized pH gradient strips were available.
As a result, I didn’t exactly pump out the publications. I had one major paper from my dissertation work – one with just me and Tom in JBC – and two co-authored papers. I also felt intense pressure to not let Tom down. I knew that I was a reflection on him and I worked really hard. He also gave me much more latitude than I think I gave my students when I started my own lab. I floundered a bit but found a lot on my own.
So, it was an isolating experience at times – even more isolating than grad school can sometimes seem to be – and something I now realize might not have been the best for me as a rather gregarious person. Moreover, the department had a heavy emphasis on neuroscience while I was working for only one of two faculty in cancer. So, I didn’t have a lot of common resources to draw from that were shared by the neuro folks. But, then again, I credit these associations with my breadth of interests today and why you see me writing regularly about drugs of abuse.
However, the lab did grow to five or six by the time I finished and we had a great core of grad students in Pharmacology and the adjoining Department of Physiology at the time. I definitely felt supported socially – even by Tom, who would regularly come to happy hour with us for oysters and beer and host us for parties at his house when he and his wife started having kids.
I have mixed feelings as to whether my fellow students who worked in bigger, more established groups had better opportunities when it came to postdocs. One one hand, yes, the connections offered by senior members of faculty did help a few of my colleagues land pretty nice postdocs. But Tom’s support of me going to meetings afforded me similar networking opportunities. Had I been withdrawn, I might not have taken advantage of those opportunities. Moreover, Tom was very well-liked and respected in the cancer biology community. Simply saying you worked for Tom opened launched a lot of conversations and opened doors for me.
In the end, however, I can’t really conclude that it’s generally more advantageous to work for a junior faculty member over a more established mentor. What I think worked here was that Tom and I were a great match for one another. He gave me exactly what I needed – including a good boot in the ass when necessary – and I hope that he feels the same. I do know that I finished in four years and four months and that he earned tenure in his fifth year.
I just pulled the old dissertation off the bookshelf and turned to the acknowledgements – they lead off with these two sentences that pretty much say it all:
I sincerely wish to thank my mentor, Dr. Thomas C. Rowe, for his patience, guidance, and friendship throughout my graduate training. I will always be honored to have been his first graduate student.
Yup. I still am.