November 2011

A letter to the entering class

What if every ASBMB member selected a mentee (a student, postdoc or junior faculty member) and gave him or her the gift of an ASBMB membership? I decided to do that for the 12 graduate students who began training this semester in the department of biochemistry at Stanford University. I don’t expect many ASBMB members to gift 12 memberships in one year, but I cannot think of a better way to welcome young scientists into our discipline. I should have been doing this for years now, for all of my students, to help them understand from the outset that they are part of a much larger community of scientists. So with that, I share with you a letter to the entering class.  

Dear First-Year Students,   

I cannot think of a more exciting time to embark on a career in science. There are so many more tools available today than ever before, and our ability to study questions on a genomewide scale represents a major advance both in terms of the scope of the answers that can now be obtained and the systemwide complexity that we can now begin to explore.    

You are now a professional researcher – getting paid to do experiments and make discoveries. The sooner you realize that students and postdocs make essentially all of the major discoveries, the sooner you will understand why coursework is an important starting point but not at all the point of graduate school. We need to teach you how to learn what you need to learn on your own. There simply is too much information and a broad swath of history that would take too much course time to explain. Discoveries won’t happen if you aren’t thinking hard about your science and spending a great deal of time doing experiments. You need to embrace your project as your own. The sooner you do this, the more successful you will be.    

Some of you will be very lucky in graduate school: Your research project will yield ready answers, and your proteins will be well behaved. Others will have a more challenging time, and those of you in this latter category will learn another important lesson – that science is not always easy and success requires knowing when to keep trying and, just as importantly, when to change tack. I will worry about those of you who have easy success, because after you graduate and you face a tougher project (and it will be when and not if), you may not have acquired the skills needed to deal with that challenge. All of a sudden, science may not seem as much fun anymore. It is those of us who have struggled who appreciate most the joys of discovery.    

My wish for each of you is that you start graduate school with a project that is extremely likely to work. This will help you gain confidence in your experimental skills and teach you to trust your data – and the discoveries your data will reveal. Then, I hope you will pick a much bolder question – one that may not have been part of your research adviser’s major grant proposal. All of us need to ask what is the most important experiment we can do or the most powerful approach we can take to address this specific question. Every molecule and process can be described and characterized, but only scientists who focus on the most significant questions will make the important breakthroughs we all seek. The most important thing we can teach you is how to pick an important question and how to address it using a variety of approaches that will enable you to tackle whatever question you select.   

 

Years ago, it was common for labs to study a single protein. Students could be assured that the lab knew how to purify that protein and how to handle it. Today it is more common for labs to study many different proteins, each with its own characteristics. When projects are selected, a student may wish for one protein and then realize that his or her exciting-sounding protein turns out to be impossible to work with. We can’t know for sure what to expect until we try a project, but one way to ensure more rapid success is to team up with another lab member on an already moving project. This kind of teamwork makes a project go faster. Individuals can have their own parts of the project but share common reagents and help troubleshoot when something isn’t working. For an adviser, this scenario is doubly reassuring, because multiple lab members can carry out complementary experiments and duplicate each other’s findings at the same time.    

In graduate school, I hope you will learn the value and power of collaboration beyond your own lab. The best scientists use multidisciplinary approaches to tackle a question, and by collaborating you can use multiple approaches and technologies to obtain a much richer and deeper answer. I can think of three times in my own lab when sending a student to another lab for a week (to David Lambright’s lab in Worcester, Mass., and Francis Barr’s lab in Munich, Germany) or a year (to Axel Brunger’s lab at Stanford University) moved their projects forward in a quantum way. Don’t be shy to collaborate. All of us are better scientists when we work together.   

We (the faculty) have an obligation to you to prepare you for the wide variety of careers that your training will qualify you for. The ASBMB will offer four career workshops in the next 12 months in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Raleigh-Durham to connect alumni representing a number of career choices with students like you who are considering all of their options. We offer four workshops every year in cities across the U.S. (Let us know if you would like to help plan one in your area.)   

The ASBMB exists to support the pursuit of biochemistry and molecular biology. We publish three excellent journals (the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the Journal of Lipid Research and Molecular and Cellular Proteomics), we organize meetings large and small, we provide student and postdoc travel awards to help you participate in our meetings, and we devote a large amount of resources toward advocating for wise science policy and strong and stable science funding. Membership offers access and supports all of these activities, plus significant page charge discounts when you are ready to publish your research findings. Finally, membership includes a subscription to ASBMB Today, which I hope you will enjoy, starting with this issue. Welcome to the world of biochemistry and molecular biology; welcome to the ASBMB.   

Suzanne PfefferASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer (pfeffer@stanford.edu) is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


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COMMENTS:

A very nice wish for new graduate students. It is a pity we don't have the same wishes and set the same kind of goals for students at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary school level. Imagine how equipped new graduate students would be to tackle the bold questions if they had already cut their teeth on problem solving in the process of discovering the concepts those still in academia insist on forcing them to memorize and regurgitate. Academia sees precious few of those individuals who might have been stellar scientists had they been convinced that science was little more than memorizing facts codified by white coats in the high towers of academia. The irony is that those who push through and hang on to gain and keep their places in academia have little time to devote to a meaningful science education for others save those that have done the same thing in order to arrive in graduate school. The result is predictable ...

 

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