small colleges/ PhD education/general science knowledge

Mon Nov 18 10:58:29 EST 1996

After reading the discussions about academic job prospects & small colleges, I
wanted to add something about how I got into research. I attended a small 4 year
college in Upstate NY (SUNY Geneseo) wholly intending to be a premed. After the
first semester, I got to enjoy listening to the research seminars the Bio dept
held on Fridays & decided to see if I liked benchwork. I volunteered in the lab
of Dr. Robert O'Donnell, an incredible educator & immunologist, starting
freshman year. By March, I had submitted for & gotten a local grant for $500
(pennies isn't it?) to cover some supplies and began a project in his lab. He
had NIH funding to study metalloprotease activity in a highly invasive mouse
tumor cell line - in vivo & in vitro. After a year, he hired me to set-up & help
teach the senior-year immunology labs. The next year, I was doing that &
supervising the research of other students, running the immunology labs, and
continuing the immunology set-ups. During this time, we had research presented
in San Diego & I had received 4 more local grants. I had fallen in love w/ the
lab work, and rationalized that I didn't want to spend my life attached to a
beeper & sleeping no hours on residencies.  

Even though I was doing  serious research, through a lot of sleep deprivation, I
found time to ride on Geneseo's equestrian team, pledge a sorority, train
horses, keep up w/ my coursework, & party _way_ too much for my own good. I had
fallen in love w/ research, but I also saw what Dr. O'Donnell was going through.
He was the freshman bio course & lab director (250 students), taught immunology
& immuno labs (40 students), had active research students (5), was an academic
advisor (55 students), was 'forced' to serve on many campus committees, taught
summer & winter break courses alternate years, and was expected to publish &
reapply for his NIH funding. How he did it all, I'll never know. The demands
placed on him - and others like my current advisor & thesis chairwoman - in
academia had(have) me wondering if this is so much better than residency &
malpractice insurance premiums!

But I decided I'd stay with it & applied to grad schools. I ended up choosing to
enter a smallish but active & well-funded departmental program that focuses on
preparing graduate students with high tech science and a lot of realism about
the prospects for your future. I haven't been around the block too long, but
I've already learned to make sure your basic research is at least a hair away
from clinical & don't be shy about asking someone's funding status if you're
going to spend 5 years there. I chose my lab (& thesis project) because I have 2
bosses - the funding comes from my one boss who's the chair of hematology (MD) &
my academic advisor is an almost-tenured yeast geneticist (PhD). It's a strange
marriage of medicine & basic research, but I think it gives me the best of both
worlds. One makes sure I don't travel any bad research roads, and the other
keeps me grounded in why this stuff is relevant to the 'real world' in the first

Am I happy w/ my choices? Right now, yes. I'm keeping my ear close to the want
ads to see how the atmosphere is changing though. I'll probably end up doing at
least 1 postdoc & may end up in industry - who knows?! I don't see it as a bad
ending, just another option that still lets me do science. I guess I'm still
green enough to feel that's what's important here. It's good to hear from others
just in front of me - a year ago my biggest obstacle was written qualifying
exams & I though I'd never get here. Now, the thesis. But at least hearing about
others' experiences is making me think actively about where I want to end up
(out of poverty would be a good start anyway!). 

I do agree that most people have no real understanding of basic science & how it
directly affects their lives. But when my 7 year old asks me why people
participate in AIDS clinical studies, I'm glad that I can give him a straight
honest answer (in terms he can understand) instead of "oh it's just another drug
test." It has to start w/ each of us educating those we can reach around us,
having us as parents demand of our schools that the level of science education
is brought up to at least 1988's levels (not just DNA in court battles), and
collectively speaking out to legislators to invest in basic research & make
_them_ understand  why it's so important. It's not going to be easy, but as
scientists/educators we all have a vested interest in making sure we're still a
'wanted' industry in the US & the world.

Oops, meeting w/ the bosses in 5 min! Don't you hate when that happens! 
Thanks for the candor from the earlier postings - 

Robyn Temple
SUNY HSC at Brooklyn
"FIRST LAW OF THE LAB: Hot glass looks exactly the same as cold glass."

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