Life Update – January 2019 (there’s a light at the end of the PhD tunnel)

We’re a month into the new year and approaching 6 years since this blog became the MD/PhD To Be that you know and love.

Every now and then over the years, I’ve made posts that are just random updates of my life throughout my training. Nearly every single one started with an apology for not posting in so long. This time I’m going to try not to apologize, but it still may seem like one. But I see it more as a lesson in prioritization and self-care. It’s me being as transparent as I can about this training process. Mental health is an important part of the training process that is not always openly acknowledged.

See, with regards to my career development, this blog is pretty low on my list of priorities. It makes me feel good about myself to help others out, but it’s not really reflected on my CV. While you need to be more than just your CV, it’s hard to rationalize working on something lower on the priority list when there’s higher priority items to get done! I tend to work slowly but thoroughly, especially when it comes to emails and planning, and the past few years in particular I’ve had a number of leadership positions at the local and national level that have required a lot of emails and decision making that I’ve always been slow to get to but have also felt guilty about not doing so. Thus, the guilt has made it quite difficult to rationalize social media and blogging. For the sake of my mental health, I’ve chosen to procrastinate by working on other higher priority items that make me feel less guilty (like, oh, my PhD research) or sometimes just playing with my (now two) cats. 😸

Anyways, a lot of time has passed since my last update (like a year and half!), and I thought I ought to provide a new one. I was thinking about this last night and realized I should just have a string of guilt-free “Life Update” posts that are more frequent and not random ones with silly titles, so that’s what I’m hoping to do going forward.

For more day-to-day updates, please follow me on Instagram at @MDPhDToBe! I’ve been trying to use that a lot more since it’s somewhat a mini-version of a blog and I’m trying to get better at using that medium. I hop on and off Twitter, but use it more for sharing/discussing papers and other resources, so if you’re interested in that, please follow me there also at @MDPhDToBe!

 

Anyways, for the life updates – there’s some big ones!

First in 2018, I had two of my greatest scientific achievements – my first paper was published and I received my first NIH funding!

This has been a long time coming. I’ve been doing research since 2011 and have been working in labs since 2010. I was close to getting a paper in undergrad, if only the data that my advisor thought would be simple actually were so! Turns out it was a much more complicated synthesis that, unlike the similar molecules that the lab previously synthesized, was particularly unstable. My contribution was basically summed up in a paper as “we tried it but this synthesis didn’t work”. 😭 Then came grad school. I switched labs after 1 year, so that was time working that didn’t contribute to a paper. It then took me 4 years in my current lab to get my first paper from start to finish, but the paper that resulted was only authored by me and my advisor. I’m proud to have finally contributed to the scientific literature!

Similarly, I wrote 3 NIH fellowship applications over the years, but only submitted 2 (if you want to know about the other, check out Why I Switched Labs in Graduate School). The first submitted application wasn’t even discussed by the reviewers meaning it was in the bottom half of the applications. The second got a remarkably good score. I didn’t actually believe it. I told my advisor the score and she ran off screaming in joy down the hallway at lab while I stood dumbfounded, continuing to think I had read it wrong. It took quite a while to sink it, but it did and I was officially received notice of my funding last May.

There’s a lot of delayed gratification in research, so it is important to celebrate your growth along the way. Five years ago, I was just starting to learn how to do animal experiments, which serve the basis of my PhD. Since then, I’ve gotten better at techniques, I presented more at conferences, and I’ve learned more and more. I thought I was hot stuff in the beginning, but now while realizing I’ve learned a lot, I also know how far I have to go. Learning is lifelong after all.

Main take-away: Pay attention to your growth and appreciate it. The little things add up to the big things. Persistence is key.

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You can read about my paper here: https://mcb.illinois.edu/news/article/503/

 

And now for 2019 – more good to come!

This is going to be a big year. Not only am I planning to defend my PhD this summer, I will also be starting my 2nd year of med school in August! I also have travel planned for some of my favorite scientific meetings and will be beginning my role as the Chair of the American College of Physicians Council of Student Members. Sadly, I will be ending my role as a member of the American Physician Scientists Association leadership. As always, it will be a lot of work, but it will also be worth it and I couldn’t imagine spending my time in any other way.

This year I am going to take the time to express gratitude for my training experience. I am going to make time to read more books that can remind me of how my work connects to a bigger picture. And I am going to make an effort to share what I can of my experience.

I originally became publicly active on social media because I couldn’t find many good resources for those considering the MD/PhD pathway. Now, thanks to the American Physician Scientists Association and #DoubleDocs, there is a large cohort of trainees connected on social media and sharing their experiences. I am proud to have had a hand in helping that happen and I hope you all will enjoy what I have to say.

It is always my goal to share as much of the experience as I can. I have a few more blog posts ideas in mind, but if there’s anything you want me to address specifically, feel free to reach out with the contact form.


Featured image: View from my recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina. You can read about it here: https://www.instagram.com/p/Bs3f-55gEkS/

If you like my writing, please consider following my blog. There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page, MD, PhD To Be, and follow me on Twitter, @MDPhDToBe, and Instagram, @MDPhDToBe. Any questions, comments, or requests for future blog posts can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me via the contact form. Thank you for reading!

 

Why I Switched Thesis Labs in Graduate School

A year ago, I began graduate school. I can recall sitting, bright eyed and bushy tailed, in an auditorium with my fellow first years as our director of graduate studies greeted us and told us about the challenge we were about to undertake. He offered words of wisdom like “Look at those around you and get to know them for one day they can become your colleagues and collaborators no matter where life takes you – academia, industry, and beyond,” and “Your choice in thesis lab is essential for your success.”

This was the first time we were told how to pick a thesis lab, but it was certainly not the last, not even from him. “Not all advisors are equal,” he warned us, “And one who might be a good advisor for one student may not be a good advisor for another student.” There are many things to consider when picking an advisor – the size of the lab, funding, the style of mentorship, the advisor’s personality, the lab’s productivity – but there was one thing he emphasized. “DO NOT pick a lab for the science. Graduate school is a time to learn to be a researcher. You have the rest of your life to do the science you want to do.”

But I didn’t listen.

During undergrad, I had decided that I wanted to do research related to cancer – more specifically, research that had a rather direct contribution to therapeutic development. I narrowed down my lab options to those with a therapeutic focus and ultimately joined a lab that studied immunotherapy, an area that I was incredibly excited about.

Unfortunately, the small lab didn’t have its “bread and butter” research, an established focus of its research efforts. But I didn’t care. During my rotation in the lab, I had designed a project to start from scratch and formed a collaborative mentorship team to help me with it. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the risk that came from starting a brand new project that neither of my mentors was well versed in. I did know there were some risks from joining the lab, though, with a history of students taking seven or eight years to complete a PhD, but I had chosen the program for the freedom to get a more extensive research experience than at MSTPs where students normally take only three or four years for a PhD and was at the time willing to take on a longer project.

Over the next eight months, I became more aware of the longevity of the training ahead of me while at the same time my project was taking its sweet time to start. Though frustrated at times with lack of progress and mentoring, I was determined to make it work. Convinced by others including my other mentor that I would be a good fellowship candidate, I devoted the summer after my first year to preparing a research proposal and associated materials for an extensive fellowship application from the NIH only to have my other mentor tell me days before submitting that not only was the proposal not ready, the project would not be suitable for a timely PhD. This was followed by the question, “Are you happy?”

My first answer was yes, of course. I thought immunotherapy was an amazing field, and I was ecstatic to be learning about it, hoping to devote my career to it. My lab mates were great. I had a good relationship with my advisor. My project, if it worked, I felt would likely be a valuable finding, and I wanted to see it out. But… my project wasn’t really going anywhere at the moment, my advisor didn’t have the expertise needed to help me with it, and while my other mentor did work with many of the techniques, some of what I proposed was even outside his expertise. Starting this project from scratch likely meant that my PhD was going to take much longer than the five years I hoped, and unfortunately, any other project I would do in the lab would also be started from scratch. With an anticipated nine years of education following graduate school (three to finish medical school, three for residency, and three for fellowship), I no longer wished to risk such a long PhD; therefore, an alternative option was to switch labs.

I had never realized how common it was to switch labs in graduate school. It is said that 20 to 30 percent of students end up switching, and as I thought of the people I knew who switched, I began to really believe those numbers. One friend switched three months after joining his lab because the professor turned out to be crazy (to put it nicely). Another switched eight months after joining because he didn’t fit well with the lab. A third switched after nearly two years when her qualifying exam went poorly and she realized her professor was just not providing the mentorship support that she needed. I also heard cases when graduate students had actually been kicked out of their labs as well and had to find another lab. Sometimes these switches occurred even later into their third, fourth, or fifth years. I was glad to be considering switching just one year into the program.

When it comes to switching labs, a challenge is to find a new lab (which is a must before telling your current advisor that you want to switch). Luckily, I have maintained contact with professors other than my own advisor throughout my first year. Therefore, when it came to looking for a new lab, I already had others where I knew the professor and would be comfortable joining their lab. The one I knew best was my other mentor for my project, but he did not work with cancer. On the other hand, his wife who I also knew well studies the liver with part of her lab focused on liver cancer. Since their labs work together and I did my last rotation in his lab, I knew I would fit in her lab. Also, unlike my first lab, she has more projects available than people to do them, and she was eager for more students. As she told me about all of the projects available, I was convinced that I would be more productive in her lab.

The biggest challenge was then to talk about my situation with my advisor. I have the utmost respect for him and was nervous to tell him that I no longer wished to be in his lab. When we spoke after being told that I should not submit my application, he told me that he had just written in my recommendation that I dealt with roadblocks well. As I had contemplated switching labs, I wondered if this would still hold true should I switch or would I be taking the easy way out? Would I be letting him down? My friends reminded me that when it comes to your future, you should never be ashamed to be selfish and do what you feel is best for you. I knew this switch was what I needed.

My advisor had been on vacation, giving me time to contemplate this whole situation. When he returned, I went to his office to talk. First we talked about what other projects I could do in the lab because I really did want to give the lab a chance. As we exhausted possible projects, though, none stood out to me as being able to provide the productive research experience I would receive in the other lab. I then suggested that an alternative option was for me to switch labs. To my relief, he was incredibly receptive, wanting whatever is best for me. I couldn’t have imagined it going any better. I’m sad to leave, but I’m glad to be leaving on such amicable terms.

Later that day, I saw the director of my graduate program speaking to a room of new students. I smiled for I, too, was bright eyed and bushy tailed just like them – just like I had been the year before – eager to get started in my new thesis lab. Perhaps someday I will again focus my efforts on immunotherapy, but for now I will still get to study cancer in lab where I have a better chance of completing a productive and timely PhD.