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.   



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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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