A Grad School Gardener

I wrote this on the plane while thinking about an upcoming GotScience Magazine series that will explore urban gardening. This story doesn’t exactly fit the science-focused mission of my blog or the GotScience series. But this is a story ultimately about my Mom, who inspired this blog and my desire to garden. 

My parents had a huge garden in our sprawling New England backyard where I grew up.  My mom came from a long line of farmers, so gardening was “in her bones,” even if it wasn’t in her children’s. My sister and I complained every time we were asked to go pick the green beans, zucchini, strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, snap peas, and whatever else had ripened overnight. But firmly rooted in my memory is the taste of a tomato plucked off the vine and popped directly into my mouth or the crunch of the baby carrot cleaned off with the dew on the grass. It may be these memories that, despite our resistance to gardening, led both my sister and I to plant gardens the second that we had the opportunity.

My opportunity was in graduate school.  Living in a small set of six rooms on “The Farm,” I could look out my window and see the rows of corn grown for genetic experiments. This corn grew out of Barbara McClintock’s pioneering work in understanding transposons (also called “jumping genes”) that led to her Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. But right next to the corn field was a smaller field commandeered by another graduate student whose goal was to grow an award winning giant pumpkin.

The fields that were offered to the students and faculty at Cold Spring Harbor weren’t nearly as well-controlled as those at The Farm. Originally, the set of 10×10 foot plots were tucked away in the middle of a wooded area that was a short walk or drive from campus.  The only rule was that you couldn’t grow corn  – because we couldn’t risk it pollinating the experimental corn and ruining the genetic experiments.

My first grad school garden in the woods

When you give a bunch of scientists land, they tend to till it with the focus and academic rigor that they bring to the hours and hours of laboratory work. These gardens were experimental, but not in the traditional sense. I experimented with growing different vegetables – beets and heirloom tomatoes – than what my mother grew. I also tried different weed suppression techniques, in part to avoid pesticides but more to avoid the tedious (and time consuming) task of weeding. Straw was highly effective, but only if put on the beds before lots of weeds started to grow. The negatives – made a mess in the car.

The next summer, the gardens were moved out of the forest and on to a hill overlooking the volleyball courts. There was a fierce volleyball competition amongst over a dozen scientist-filled teams each summer, so this locale was convenient for garden tending post game. The garden community thrived here. It was so popular that people started to share their small plots along with their advice and vegetables. Within a small research institute on Long Island, it pulled the scientists out of the labs, into the sun, and as a side effect, put tons of fabulous food on our tables each summer.

I look back fondly on those days. Since moving to Phoenix, I haven’t yet mastered the art of urban (and desert) gardening. But I now understand why my mother toiled each spring to prepare a garden to harvest all summer. There’s something about having your hands in the dirt and crunching into that first carrot of the season that you grew yourself that makes all the work worth it.

 

 

 

 

What’s it like getting a science PhD?

By AdmOxalate (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by AdmOxalate (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. This is where I went to grad school.

In my last post, I talked about how to get into graduate school.  This post will be about how PhD programs in the sciences are structured and how they work, because I’ve realized from lots of conversations with my non-scientist friends and family – no one really knows much about this!

There are fundamental differences between getting a PhD in the sciences and getting one in anything else. The first main difference is that you don’t have to pay for a PhD in the sciences, and in fact, they pay you.  Don’t get excited – they don’t pay much. The current NIH stipend rate is $22,920 per year (only about $2900 more in 2015 than what I received in 2001).  Tuition and this stipend are paid for in different ways depending on the school.  Some schools have endowments that support graduation positions. For example, I was supported by an institutional endowment made by the Beckman Foundation for my first two years of graduate school. Some schools rely on the students working as Teaching Assistants (TAs) helping to teach undergraduate courses to support some or all of their tuition or stipend.  In many cases, the research laboratory that the student works in pays for the tuition and stipend using their grants. Graduate students themselves also can apply for funding, which along with helping fund their position, is a prestigious resume entry.  I applied for and was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship that supported my last few years of graduate school.

The second main difference between a science and non-science PhD is that there is NO WAY that you can work and get your PhD at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, you work. You work your butt off every day all day, but not while making money at another job. With the nature of scientific research, there isn’t time to have another job, and in most cases, it isn’t allowed by the institution anyway.

What is a graduate student so busy doing?  The graduate program at the WSBS, where I went to school, was designed to be very different from the traditional American graduate school model.  I’ll start by describing, generally (since all grad schools are different) traditional programs and then describe my program. Most PhD programs are expected to last between 4-7 years. The first two years are filled with a few key activities:

  • First two years: Traditional classes at the graduate level that cover scientific topics more deeply than an undergraduate program
  • First year: Rotations. These are short (usually 3 month) stints in a laboratory to figure out if you like what the research that lab is doing and whether or not you’d want to do your PhD thesis research there. This is also the chance for the head of that lab (also called the Principal Investigator or PI) to figure out if they want to have you in the lab for the next 4-6 years.
  • End of second year: Qualifying Exam. This exam, also called the comprehensive exam at some schools, is an enormous exam that is like the trigger for the institution to determine if you go forward in the PhD program or not. Usually held at the end of the second year, if you pass, you move on to nearly exclusively doing research in the lab to complete your thesis.  If not… well, I don’t think I know anyone who didn’t pass after at least a few tries.
  • Third year until you graduate: After the first few years, most of the time is spent in the lab. There may be required Teaching Assistant responsibilities or other required seminar classes (like Journal Club), but this varies by school. Then there are the thesis committee meetings.  Pretty early on in each student’s research project, a committee of 3-5 faculty at the university are invited to participate on your thesis committee.  Their job is to provide a set of eyes (other than the PI of your lab) to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. They approve the thesis proposal and meet with you regularly (in a traditional program, this might be yearly) to keep you on track. They are also the committee that reads and evaluates your thesis dissertation and holds your defense (more on that shortly).

As I mentioned, this traditional system is a bit different from what I went through at CSHL.  The philosophy of WSBS is to shorten the time frame from matriculation to graduation to 4 years while also maintaining academic excellence.

  • First semester (4 months): This is the only time I took core courses – what my mom called “Science Boot Camp”.  These classes were unique because instead of learning facts out of textbooks we learned how to critically think about, write about, and present science. The classes focused on reading journal articles, scientific exposition and ethics, and particular scientific topics in depth like neuroscience and cancer.
  • Second semester (4 months): After the first semester, we had three one month rotations that allowed us to explore our scientific interests to help decide on a thesis laboratory or just allow us to try something new. I did rotations in a lab that used computers to understand lots of scientific data, a lab that used microscopy to figure out how a cell worked, and a lab that studied apoptosis (where I ended up doing my thesis research). Also during this time, we did our one required teaching experience at the DNA Learning Center. Here we taught middle and high school students about biology and DNA.  The idea was that if we could explain science to kids, we could explain it to anyone.
  • End of year one:  After the first year, we took the Qualifying Exam.  For my QE, I had two topics assigned to me (Cancer and Cell-Cell Communication) and I had to learn everything about these two topics in one month. A panel then grilled me for nearly 2 hours on these topics, and fortunately, I passed.
  • Years 2-4: The classes are only held in the first semester and the rotations only held in the second semester so that we could focus on what we were doing at all times. No excuses. So after the qualifying exam we were expected to focus on all research all the time. The one exception being the Topics in Biology courses held each year.  The Topics in Biology courses were held for an entire week (7am-11pm) and gave you the chance to interact with experts in various fields both to extend your scientific knowledge and to critically think about new problems.
Photo Nov 15, 9 24 23 PM

My thesis. It’s about 1.5 inches thick. Or as my hubby said “That’s your thesis? Impressive, baby”

Doing research was intense lab work punctuated by intense meetings.  FYI – intense lab works mean 8am-7pm (or later) Monday through Friday and usually the weekend too (and by weekend, I do mean both Saturday and Sunday).  And let’s not forget the 4am time points when you have to go into the lab just to check on your experiments every 4-6 hours for 24 hours straight. But back to the intense meetings…The first intense meeting was the thesis proposal defense, which was held in the second year. This was where you told a committee of 4-5 researchers what you were going to research for the rest of grad school, they quizzed you for 1-2 hours and then gave you the go ahead (or not) to do that work. The next set of intense meeting were the thesis committee meetings every 6 months to keep each student was on track. Again, 1-2 hours of presenting and critical evaluation of your work by committee.  At some point, the committee gives you the “green light” to start writing your thesis, you take all of the work from the past 3-4 years and put it in a massive document called a dissertation. The thesis committee reads it, you present the work in front of them and all of your family and friends, and then again, you spend 2 hours in a room with your committee answering every question they can think of – aka “defending” your thesis.

Cathy_graduation

My PhD graduation day with two of my classmates. I’m in the center

As I write this, I realize that my thesis defense was 9 years ago next week. How time flies. After the defense, you have your PhD and officially graduate whenever the ceremony is held – in my case in May of 2007. I graduated 5 years after I started – just slightly longer than the expected 4 years for the Watson School. Was it easy? Nope, not even a little bit (ask my mom). Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

This post is dedicated to my classmates and my friends in graduate school – you know who you are.  Without you, I wouldn’t have made it. And to my mom, who convinced me at least twice, not to quit.

How do you get into a PhD program in science?

When I was very young, my uncle died from lung cancer. I wasn’t allowed to see him before he died (his wishes). There was a part of me that thought it was my fault that he dies because he didn’t listen to my pleas that he should stop smoking. That’s when I decided that I should cure cancer. At the time, I had no idea how to do that, but by the time I was in high school, I realized it would involve getting a PhD.  Other than a great uncle (on the other side of the family) that I barely knew, no one else in my family had a PhD, so I was the trailblazer in figuring out how it all works. In this post and my post on Thursday, I’ll write about how to get into graduate school and then what the program is like once you get there. More accurately, I’ll write about how I got  into grad school and what grad school was like for me since I know that everyone’s experience is different.

So how do you get into a PhD program? Let’s skip the fact that you’ll need an interest in science, good grades in college and likely do undergraduate research. Also, one difference between science PhDs and other PhDs is that you aren’t expected to get your Master’s degree first. You can apply straight from undergrad, and the idea is that you get your Master’s degree on your way towards the PhD.  If you leave the PhD program at a certain point (usually after you take a qualifying exam), you’ll leave with a Master’s degree. In fact, other than maybe having more research or other experience, there isn’t much of an advantage to getting a Master’s before your PhD degree versus not.

The first step needed before applying for grad school is to take the general GREs exam along with a subject-based GRE exam.  These are standardized tests like the SAT or ACT but for graduate school.  The subject-based exam feels like the biggest and longest test you’ve ever taken for a particular subject.  I took the Biology subject test (I could have taken the Biochemistry subject test, but I heard it was a lot harder, so I just studied by butt off for the Biology one instead). For most grad schools, these exam scores are critical.  Just like if you get a good score on the SAT you can get into high ranking colleges, high GREs scores help you get into grad programs at the Harvards and Yales of the world.

Just like undergrad, you have to send in your applications with the ever-important personal statement.  This statement has to talk about why you want to go to grad school, but also why that school and the researchers at that institution are of interest to you.  When I advise current undergrads about choosing a PhD program, the most critical part is to apply to schools that have research labs that do the research that you are interested in.  Once you get into the graduate program, as I’ll talk about in detail in my post on Thursday, you spend years of your life in this research lab so if there isn’t a research lab you like, don’t even bother applying to that school.

phdAfter applying, the graduate schools interested in you invite you for an interview.  This isn’t a one hour, chat with a guidance counselor type of interview.  This is a weekend of interviews with distinguished faculty grilling you about your undergraduate research (assuming you had some) and asking critical questions to determine how clever you are and whether you’d be a good fit for the school. I went on three interview weekends at Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins and the Watson School of Biological Sciences (WSBS) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL)(where I eventually attended). The CSHL interview by far was the most intense with over a dozen interviews in one day including one with Nobel Laureate Jim Watson who was the chancellor of the lab at the time. My favorite “words of wisdom” from Dr. Watson at that interview were to always select research projects with a 30% chance success. Less than that, you’d be wasting your time and more than that, the project is too obvious and wouldn’t make a big impact on the field. This may sound a bit masochistic – setting yourself up for likely failure – but this is the life of a scientist!

Usually there are dozens of candidates invited for the interview weekends so the schools also plan bonding time among the candidates and the current grad students. This could be a dinner out, a party thrown by one of the current grad students, or a trip to NYC to see a Broadway show.  To this day I’m still friends with people that I interviewed with even though we both chose other grad schools.

After the interview, the waiting game begins. I remember the evening that I received the call saying that I was accepted into the CSHL program (the one I really wanted to attend). I was in my dorm room at Boston University and I get a phone call – keep in mind this is before cell phones so they called the landline in my room. I thought it was a prank call from my friend Greg and I told him (more than once) that this wasn’t a funny joke. No joke – the Dean of the school was called to let me know about my acceptance. I received the official acceptance letter in an email minutes later.

wsbs_2001

My WSBS Class entering in 2001. I’m the one sitting on the double helix

I actually got into all of the graduate programs that I applied to, which caused a bit of a problem because my dream had always been to attend Harvard. My decision, then, to attend the Watson School was confusing to my parents, who had heard of Harvard but never Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  Why was this my choice? The research at CSHL was incredible  – every scientist was engaged with their work like I had never experienced in my undergraduate career. It was inspirational to think about being a part of that. CHSL had also just started their graduate program – I would be in the third entering class – and their program focused on learning how to learn and how to think in a way that was different than any other graduate program out there (more on that in the next post). I wanted to be a pioneer in this program. And finally, the culture suited me. I went to a large undergraduate institution with classes of 300 people and anonymity amongst thousands of classmates. In graduate school, I wanted to be part of a small class where I could really be challenged and learn from a close-knit group of peers. My WSBS class had six students, including myself, that constantly challenged me to think faster and smarter and become the best scientist that I could be.