My third and final rotation

To put it simply, my third rotation was different.

Leaning toward joining my second rotation lab, I picked my third rotation advisor not because of the research focus but because the PI (primary investigator) was a new and enthusiastic professor. Seriously, this PI is one of the most passionate people I have met within the field of science. I had met them on my interview weekend and really enjoyed hearing their take on academia as a recent post doc. As they told me about their research I kept asking “You could apply that to cancer, right?” and they would say, “Yeah, but we’re doing it with muscular dystrophy in the heart” or “Yeah, but we’re looking at the liver.” The scientific area they looked at in the lab (RNA expression/splicing) was a secondary reason why I chose the lab for my last rotation.

I knew I didn’t want to look at the liver or the heart, but I thought I’d try just to see if it sparked my interest outside of cancer in general.

I solidified my decision for doing my third rotation in the lab before I began the second. Then as I began my second rotation, an opportunity to form a collaboration for a grant related to cancer arose and I suggested my third rotation advisor as a collaborator since the techniques used in that lab could be applied to our research. We together wrote our letter of intent for the grant and I began planning a project for me to do during my rotation.

Unlike most students who begin their rotations and are introduced to the lab’s work then given a project, I came in to the rotation declaring my project and was given a side project to get used to the techniques of the lab before applying them to my precious samples. I was given some papers related to the liver work that I was doing but other than my introduction, I never really had a conversation about what I could do with it as a thesis project. I found out at the end that they had that kind of discussion with other rotation students but because I was so set in my ways that there was no need to convince me to switch my interests from cancer and the immune system to the liver.

While I ended up not joining the lab, I had a great time getting to know everyone in the lab (though it was relatively new, there were a lot of undergrads to get to know in addition to the grad student and post doc). I will definitely miss them but I hope to continue to the collaborative project with the lab so I will still get to interact with them. Nonetheless, this rotation re-introduced me to techniques I hadn’t used for many years such as western blots (which I had done in biochemistry lab) and PCR (which I had done in my first undergrad research lab), which was nice to go back to (and made me sort of nostalgic about my first undergrad lab)! So overall, it was quite enjoyable.

I ultimately ended up joining my second rotation lab, but I am glad that I complemented the first chemistry-focused lab developing chemotherapeutic agents and the second immunology lab focused on developing immunotherapies for brain cancer with a lab focused on understanding the RNA expression and splicing changes in disease and development. I ultimately joined the immunology lab, but as I’m researching potential directions to go with my project, I am finding ways to include the three distinct labs in which I did my rotations.

Unlike many students who came in to the program knowing that they wanted to work in a particular area – be it microbiology or biochemistry – or a particular topic – such as non-coding RNA – I came in with a general purpose to have my work relate to cancer therapy. I rotated in both biochemistry and physiology labs that were in quite distinct areas of chemical synthesis and characterization of potential drugs, immunology, and RNA expression. My list of potential research advisors included PIs from all four departments in my specific graduate school. And I went to seminars for all departments as I found some related to my interests in every department.

While I may have a different way of deciding my thesis lab, being much more of a generalist, I think in the long run, it’ll do me well. It’ll help me be a more well-rounded researcher with a broader scope of the implications of my work and the methods available. It’ll also keep things exciting. Instead of being a specialist in a certain scientific level be it biochemistry, microbiology, physiology, etc., I hope to be a specialist in a disease. Pathology is so complex that I feel this is a good perspective to have for my ultimate goal. Throughout the fall, I have made great connections with professors and graduate students during my rotations from many different areas who I can go to for help throughout my journey, and I can’t wait to get started in my permanent lab!

Picking a thesis lab is a lot like dating

The lab where you do your graduate school thesis work is where you will be spending about 5 years of your life (or longer depending on your project, sometimes shorter). Whether you do it faster or slower, it is still many, many years of your life. Even more, this experience will be essential to prepare you for your career and so where you do your thesis really has implications for the rest of your life. It does not necessarily define it, but it sure is a lot better to get into a lab where you will be able to get the most out of the experience so that you can be productive and well-prepared to hit the ground running in your career.

Basically, it’s a pretty big decision. Just as big of a decision as picking a significant other, only you’re on a time frame. In my program, we are required to rotate in labs to get a better feel of them, sort of like casually dating a few people before picking someone to go steady with. Each rotation lasts five weeks. At the end of these 15 weeks, we must then go to a professor and join their lab. Let’s just say, I now understand truly why people say that they’re dating grad school and it’s not just about the time commitment.

Say you see a cute looking guy/gal at a party or in class or somewhere in public…

During our orientation, we had three days where faculty gave talks about their research so that we could figure out whose research interested us. We were just an audience for the professor; they had no idea who any of us were or who out of us were interested in their lab just as you would never know someone was checking you out (unless they’re pretty obvious about it).

…and you find out their name, so naturally, you look them up on Facebook…

Schools generally list their faculty on their websites so you can look them up and read a snippet about their research. Additionally, they often list their notable papers that you can then find online and read more about their research. This gives you background information on their work and helps you figure out if you’re truly interested in their research topic. Depending on how much information they have online, you can find out other things like what kind of awards they’ve received, the size of their lab, and the kind of journals where they tend to publish.

…you think you like what you see and so you decide to make a move…

Not all professors require it (they often mentioned it in their talks), but it is a good idea to send an e-mail to those professors you would like to rotate with to introduce yourself, explain that you’re interested in their work and why you are interested (which is where doing background research about their work can come in handy), and possibly argue why you would be a good addition to their lab. If you would like to be so forward, you can then ask if they would like to meet and discuss the possibility of rotating in their lab and what projects are available for rotation students. It’s kind of like asking someone on a date.

…Wow, they said yes! Now you actually have to go on that date…

So the professor said they would love to meet with you, cool! You meet them in their office (usually) and they try to get to know a little more about you – what your previous research experience has been, what you want your future research to be, why you want to be in their lab (often more in depth about the things you wrote in your e-mail). Then they tell you about their research (which can get lengthy as professors LOVE to talk about their work… I usually set aside an hour or so when I meet with a professor). Perhaps you both really like each other after these discussions and it progresses to actually rotating in their lab, then you get on the topic of rotation projects. Yay!

Since there are so many students in my class and our interests may overlap, just because there is mutual interest between student and professor doesn’t mean that you’ll get to rotate with them. We list our top six preferences for professors and a committee then goes through to optimize our placement so that everyone gets the highest choice possible – say six people list one person as their first choice but that person is only taking one student at a time, five of those people will not be getting their
top choice. If a professor REALLY likes you, they can increase your chances by giving input to the committee that they’d really like to have you as a student.

…You understand that the person may be putting on an act, so you try to find out more about them from people that know them…

Grad students are likely to tell you the honest truth about the lab. They understand what you are going through having gone through it themselves and so they generally are willing to tell you straight up what is good and bad about the lab. Maybe the professor seems really nice when you meet them but has been known to actually scream at his students (true story, glad I found that out before I put him as one of my top choices). Obviously he’s not going to tell you that he does that but the grad students definitely will.

…as you’re not in a steady/exclusive relationship yet, you can go ahead and flirt with other people and you take full advantage of the opportunity…

No matter how much you want to join a particular lab, it is in your best interest to talk to many professors to really find your best fit. Whether their lab becomes one of the three where you rotate or not, they can still be a good connection for possibly being on your thesis committee (a group of professors that oversee your progress and ultimately decide when you can graduate with a PhD), teaching a class that you TA for, or teaching a class that you actually take. You may feel like a player, but it’s okay because the professors are likely talking to more students than they’ll be taking into their lab too.

…the stars align and you start regularly dating a person…

The committee takes the list of six preferences from each student and works their magic to satisfy the students and professors to the best of their abilities (a HUGE challenge). Voila! For the next five weeks you will be in a certain professor’s lab.

…you keep the fire alive in the relationship…

Nothing is set in stone yet, so you need to continually show that you would be a good addition to the lab – a good mate. As a rotation student (and later as a permanent member of a lab), it is important to show interest in the work. The professor/grad students may give you papers to read and discuss with them. You can even go beyond that and find more papers related to those given to you. You also do lab work and try to be as productive as possible. You work long hours to show your dedication. You just generally try to act as a student who will be a good contributor to the professor’s research goals (and if you’re genuinely interested in the lab, all of this just comes naturally!)

…you get to know their friends and hang out with them…

It’s always important to be able to get along with your significant other’s friends and of course have their approval. In grad school, this is important too. You try to get to know the graduate students that are already in the lab to see if you’d get along as coworkers. The social dynamics of the lab can sometimes make or break your experience. These people can potentially help you adjust to the lab and learn the methods related to your work, and potentially collaborate with you on your projects.

…finally, you decide to get serious and become exclusive – you have your match!

After three rotations in different labs, you approach the professor you want to advise you on your thesis work and ask to join their lab. Assuming that they haven’t already had others approach them and so there are still positions available, they may say yes and you then have your thesis lab! Sometimes others get to the professor first and they fill the available spots in their lab so you’re out of luck there. You then approach your second choice. If all three of your rotations are either incompatible with your personality/research interests/work ethic, you may not get into any of your rotation labs. There is an option to do an extra rotation during winter break, but this is a last resort. Ultimately, the program will do its best to get you matched to a lab.

Say the person you ended up with isn’t the best (maybe you didn’t find out everything you should have before making a decision). There is still an option to break it off and go steady with someone else.

I have heard a few cases where students joined a thesis lab and a few months later joined a different lab (even a case where this happened a few years into the thesis.) It’s not optimal as it sets you back but it can be done. In fact it’s better to start over after a little while than be in misery for your whole thesis or risk not being able to complete it.

This is what myself and the rest of my peers are going through this fall. We are currently awaiting the placement for our second rotation. Starting on December 9, we will be able to officially join a lab (happy birthday to me!)