Grad school diaries: The preliminary exam

The past few weeks months have been terrifying, nerve-wracking, depressing, and scary. My friends and family have also been subjected to my constant irritable and grouchy behavior. I have been preparing for my preliminary examination and everything seems to be coming together (very) slowly. I have woken up to sweaty nightmares about missing deadlines, submitting a complete crap proposal to my committee, and being told that my “scientific caliber” is not up to the mark to pursue an academic career (gulp!)

The first week of November is officially my “prelim week” and I will continue to go through series of mini heart-attacks and one too many mood swings until then. What exactly is a preliminary examination, you ask? Well, also called as the “candidacy exam”, or “the OP” (short for the original proposal – mostly followed in life sciences, I think), it is an examination that PhD students are required to take (and pass) in order to officially become PhD candidates. Many schools and department do this differently, and I can only tell you what is done in my program. Here is a short excerpt about the exam from our handbook –

The purpose of the Preliminary Examination is to stimulate you to develop original research ideas and to assess your academic knowledge, preparation and ability to analyze and synthesize the literature on and surrounding your topic. In the written proposal, you are expected to provide the examination committee with adequate background and details to understand the current state of the chosen field of research and to evaluate your proposed experiments. The oral examination allows the committee the opportunity to test your knowledge of the chosen research project, your ability to formulate and address a few research questions to anticipate the types of results to be obtained, and to evaluate your understanding of its scientific foundation. The examination will not only assess the science involved in the proposal but also will evaluate the quality of the presentation and the writing.

Basically, we are required to come up with an original idea – a topic that is not our main thesis research, write a hypothesis-driven research proposal in the NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant (NIH R21)-type format, and defend it in front of our prelim committee (which is different from our thesis committee and consists of new members). The proposal must be original and designed to advance the current state of knowledge in the chosen field. It cannot be based on our own (current or previous) research projects. Also, our advisor cannot critique the research proposal prior to submission of the proposal to the prelim committee. The whole process takes almost 8-9 months and I have briefly summarized the timeline of the process below –

March-April 2017: Brainstorming ideas for the topic; Reading, reading, and more reading. (My topic is about the role of myeloid-derived suppressor cells or MDSCs in mediating pancreatic beta-cell death in Type 1 Diabetes, which is an autoimmune disorder.)

May 2017: Topic approval by the program office.

June-August 2017: Literature review; Brainstorming ideas and key questions for experiments, techniques, aims, etc; Beginning to write… maybe…

August 2017: Prelim committee assigned; Serious writing and reviewing (rinse, repeat); More reading.

September 2017: First draft completion; Review by peers, friends, and colleagues; Schedule date and time for the oral defense with committee; MORE READING.

October 2017: Submission of written proposal to the program office and prelim committee (4 weeks prior to oral defense); Approval of proposal for oral defense (or, revise and resubmission of proposal aka “your proposal is indefensible at this stage and requires more work”); Practicing oral talk (aka “pre-prelim talk”).

November 2017: Defense! Drinking and crying (if pass); Drinking and crying (if fail); New sense of purpose in life.

A few weeks into this process (around May), the horror stories start – stories about seniors failing their defense and “Mastering out” (which is seen in a really bad light), stories about committee member issues, stories about inadequate writing, etc. I have heard one too many stories about people dealing with depression and constant stress during the period of writing and oral defense. There are tons of useful advice about what to do and what not to do during the process. Of course, the experience is unique and different for every student but it would certainly be easy if I could get on with it without constantly being traumatized by every little detail (like feeling guilty every minute that I’m not thinking about my OP or working on it).

However, a few things have indeed helped me so far:

  • Finding a studying/writing spot outside of work and my apartment. I have been working at WALC until wee hours of night these days. (WALC is the active learning center on campus and is always hustling and bustling with students.) Just being among other students and the white noise in the background seems to be a great environment to focus and get stuff done.IMG_0707-2
  • Biking to and from work every day (around 6.5 miles). My friend recently convinced me to buy a bike and I must say that it has helped me get around the campus faster and save a ton of time. Not to forget the kick of endorphins in the morning that helps me focus on my experiments in the lab and plan things more effectively through the day. I spend most of the mornings doing cell culture work (I get done with this the first thing in the morning in order to make time for meetings and other experiments through the day) and afternoons on tissue processing and protein work. This gives me sufficient time from evening until late night to work on my OP.
  • Eating regularly, but not fussing over cooking. Most of the time spent on cooking and cleaning can be replaced by quickly grabbing something to eat on the go. (I can hear my sister squeaming at this already!)
  • Talking Ranting to friends, especially colleagues about the OP, work, life, and everything in general to relieve all the stress. I am fortunate to be on the same boat as many folks who can relate to my situation and listen to my rambling.
  • Reading something completely un-related to my research or the OP over the weekends. I have read three books in the past few months (check out my reading list!).

Alright, I should probably get back to work now (this was some major procrastination and I am feeling guilty already). Perhaps I should talk about my topic in detail on the next post. Until then, I will try to keep calm and carry on.

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Religion, science, and believing.

I don’t usually talk about my personal views on this blog. However, this topic is something that I have contemplated for a while now and think is fair to be open about. I am still learning and evaluating my outlook on approaching this subject. Below are some bits revolving around the themes of religion and personal belief systems that were hidden away in my drafts folder for a long time. I have decided to publish all of them together. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this topic in the future, but here’s a start.

***

Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow grad student about religion and his personal beliefs. Most academics shy away from this discussion in a professional (and sometimes even in a personal) setting. It is considered uncommon or rude to talk about it and people keep it to themselves. It is often acknowledged that as scientists, “we do science for science’s sake”, or that “a person’s religious beliefs has no place in his/her scientific pursuits.” This is something that has always boggled my mind. As a biologist and an atheist, I have confidence in my work/study because the underlying laws of biological systems are established and follow a set of proven scientific principles. For example, when we design an antibacterial drug against a particular strain of resistent bacteria, we know for a fact that the bacteria has mutated (or evolved) and therefore the old drug doesn’t work anymore. Similarly, we use mouse, worm, and other animal models for testing compounds in vivo because we have evidence to prove that humans are genetically related to other animals through a common evolutionary ancestor. Therefore, we can study the effects of the drugs in other animals before testing them to humans. The empirical evidence that exists as the basis of our research is inherently acknowledged to be the underlying force that drives scientific research. Now, how can someone who does similar work in a laboratory setting have a completely contradictory viewpoint in his/her private life? How can someone believe in a book (or many books) that preaches blatant falsehoods about our understanding of the universe and at the same time come to work every day and do science with a conscious mind? For me, science is deeply woven into our personal lives. No, I cannot pretend that science does not affect my personal views about the world. Similarly, my conscious will never let me pretend like my personal views have no affect on my scientific work.

***

One of the most common arguments that I have come across during such discussion is that people often say “I don’t believe in *everything* that this book says. I only believe in a few things that are important for my moral framework.” This is complete BS and hypocritical. One cannot disregard a particular theory written in a book (for example, “the earth is 6000 years old”, or, “when humans die we come back as another life form on earth”), and at the same time believe in another theory written in the same book. One can’t pick and choose what you want to accept and reject from a book, and then claim the book to guide one’s moral framework.

And then there is an argument that science is not perfect and that not everything published in all of the scientific literature is true. This is absolutely correct. This is why science is constantly changing – because our understanding of the world is constantly changing. This is why scientific literature constantly undergoes modifications and updates to accommodate our latest understanding of the world and the universe.

This is not the same with religious texts. These texts were written hundreds and thousands of years ago and are obsolete in this day and age. These texts were written to accommodate the worldview of an ancient time period. They are not relevant to the 21st century and we certainly do not have to submit to these texts in order to live within a moral framework of society. As of 2017, we have discovered around 8.7 million species on earth and can estimate a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. We have achieved things that were once considered unfathomable by humankind. Why do we have to be stuck in the ancient past and live by some 12th century law in order to be considered as “good humans”? Of course, religious texts provide interesting insight into various philosophical questions that one can ponder over. However, they do very little to the understanding and practice of science in this day and age.

It is also often argued that we need religion to understand morality and differentiate between good and evil. Religion does not equal morality. One does not have to be a good human just to please an invisible supreme being or to go to heaven. Altruism and kindness can exist on their own.

***

Talking about scientists with personal religious beliefs, I remember a wonderful conversation between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss many years ago. I can’t help but bring up a part of their conversation while thinking about this topic –

Krauss: I’ve had people write to me and say “I’m a medical doctor and I don’t believe in evolution.”

Dawkins: That’s a disgrace. I’m not supposed to say that, especially in this country (referring to the US) because one’s private beliefs are supposed to be irrelevant. But I would walk out of a doctor’s office and not consult him anymore if I heard that he said that. Because what that doctor is saying is that he’s a scientific ignoramus and a fool.

Krauss: In fact, in that regard, it is interesting to me at the same time how people can hold beliefs which are incompatible with other beliefs they have. And in some sense, everyone is a scientist and they just don’t realize they are, and yet in the time of crisis, that’s when.. (breaks). The example I gave is when George Bush was president, he said intelligent design must be taught alongside evolution so the kids will know what the debate is all about. And it wasn’t a stupid statement at priori, it was ignorant because he didn’t realize that there’s no debate. And that’s fine. I don’t mean ignorant in a pejorative sense, I just mean he wasn’t aware.

Dawkins: Ignorance is no crime.. you just don’t want to consult a doctor who’s ignorant.

Krauss: What amazed me is that in the same administration, when the avian flu was going to be a problem and mutating to humans, president Bush said “We’ve got to find how long it takes before the avian flu will mutate into humans.” And what amazed me is that no one in the administration – not a single person said “It’s been designed to kill us, forget about it.”

Dawkins: That’s a very good point. This kind of split-brain business which you’ve been referring to, the most glaring example I know, is more in your field (referring to Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics) than mine. I was told by a professor of Astronomy at Oxford, about a colleague of his who’s an astronomer and an astrophysicist, who writes learned papers – mathematical papers, published in astronomical journals, assuming that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. But he privately believes that the universe is only 6000 years old. How can a man like that hold down a job in a university as an astrophysicist? And yet, we are told “Well, it’s his private beliefs, you mustn’t interfere with this man’s private beliefs as long as he writes competent papers in astronomical journals”.

Krauss: Well, I mean, as long as he doesn’t teach his private beliefs.

Dawkins: Well, let’s hypothetically suppose that he teaches absolutely correctly – that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. How could you want to take a class from a man who teaches one thing and believes in something that is so many orders of magnitude different?

***

About believing in science.

My advisor once pointed out not to use the word ‘believe’ when someone said “I believe that..” during a lab meeting presentation. Back then, I didn’t understand what was wrong in saying we “believed” in something. I now understand. As scientists, we evaluate something on the basis of observation, experiment, and evidence. The evidence is dependent on the observations made and experiments performed. Therefore, something is either likely or unlikely to occur. It is either more probable or less probable. We don’t have to believe in evolution or the big bang theory. We accept the evidence that supports them. Believing in evolution or not doesn’t make it true. The evidence for evolution suggests that it is true. Belief is not a part of rational enquiry. Belief relies on faith and not on evidence.

[Almost] one year milestone – my first advisory committee meeting

Advisory committee meetings are held once every year (or twice every year, if the student or the committee chooses to do so) to asses the progress of a grad student’s PhD thesis. The meeting involves a written report that is to be submitted to the committee a week prior to the meeting and an oral presentation on the D-Day. During the presentation, the validity of the research work is thoroughly discussed along with the future direction(s) of the project(s) being undertaken. The advisory committee meetings are extremely important for the successful advancement and completion of a thesis – it is where brutal yet honest feedback is conveyed. We as grad students are forced to think critically of our work and defend our hypotheses as well as our results.

My first advisory committee meeting was an intense two-hour long session on a rather dull Tuesday afternoon. As I explained the premise of my work and my goals for the next year, my committee members brought up important questions that I had not previously ever considered. All the members of my committee, including my advisor, were supportive and encouraging. I learned some valuable lessons from the entire experience and got some great feedback from everyone. Some interesting and important points highlighted in my feedback assessment were –

  • Think carefully about how to present data and set up an argument in my presentation.
  • Work on clearly identifying the premise that sets the stage for my hypotheses.
  • Be critical about my data.
  • Continue to read literature: more reading, and reading more critically.
  • Focus on developing more robust immunological assays to answer the questions in my aims.
  • Interact more with colleagues on campus and at other schools to learn and get insight into techniques and relevant assays (wrt understanding what works and what doesn’t).
  • Explaining the experiments in detail before delving into my results (every assay is unique and has a question to be answered).
  • Think about how I want to present the previous studies done in the field that are relevant to my questions.
  • My hypotheses should be provided with a context (what is the data in support or against my hypotheses?)

These were just some of the significant parts of the feedback that I received. Now it’s time to put these into action and definitely work on continuing to build on my project more confidently. More later.

Thoughts on lab rotations

The thing with first-year rotations in a Ph.D. program is that anxiety starts kicking in somewhere along the way when you consciously identify the lab that you want to join and want to get started right away. Having realized that this is going to be a long journey and rushing into things may not help, I am now gaining patience and perspective, and hope to make the most of the remaining time of my first year.

Rotations are a great way to learn about a lab and get involved in the nitty-gritty of research. I was warned at the beginning by a few seniors that I would either love a lab or reject it within the first few weeks of the rotation. Mind you – this has nothing to do with the science pursued in the lab (one wouldn’t decide to rotate in a lab if they didn’t find the research interesting in the first place). This is more about getting comfortable with the way a lab functions and deciding if the environment is a good fit for you. An eight-week lab rotation is really like an eight-week long interview with a potential PI and the lab! It is essential to identify the kind of relationship you foresee having with your advisor for the next couple of years (and beyond). This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of a rotation for me, next to the research work. A good mentor-mentee relationship can go a long way and can be extremely beneficial to one’s academic/professional career. I prefer having an open channel of communication with my mentor and learn as much as possible from him/her.

Not all graduate programs require laboratory rotations. Many departments or programs accept or reject students simply based on their application and/or an interview. In the UK for example, students are recruited to work on specific projects and grants as a part of their Ph.D. for the time period of around 3 years. This may not benefit the candidates who wish to propose their own ideas and develop their own thesis based on their individual research interests. In the US, for most graduate programs in the life sciences (mainly biology and chemistry), the average time for graduation is around 5-6 years. I believe that the freedom and independence of this system trump the short graduation time of the other systems. Although I am certain that both sides have their set of merits and demerits, at the end of the day, the journey is unique to each one of us and what we make of the experience matters the most.

Blots, cultures and assays concludes rotation two

This week officially concludes my second laboratory rotation in the neuropharmacology lab with research focussed on  G protein-coupled receptors and their application in several neurological disorders such as depression and anxiety. In the eight week duration of my rotation, a few things were achieved with respect to validating the activity of the newly developed M4R-DREADD (a designer M4 muscarinic receptor exclusively activated by a designer drug). Designer receptors are engineered such that they are solely activated by a synthetic ligand. This opens new avenues in the activation and control of G protein-coupled receptors’ function in vivo.

After a long break from my Master’s research, I got back to maintaining two cell lines – CHO (Chinese Hamster Ovary) and HEK293 (Human Embryonic Kidney) cells, in which the opioid receptors were expressed for all my experiments. These cells were used to characterize the receptor signaling by western blot analysis of the downstream MAPK/ERK signaling  upon stimulation by a few agonists/drugs of interest. Luckily, the lab acquired a new fluorescence microscope during this period which helped us observe the recruitment of the β-arretin2 protein by δ-opioid receptors in HEK293 cells stimulated with clozapine-n-oxide, a synthetic ligand.

mrrd-gfp barrest-cherr cno 0 min 20x_Overlay copy
HEK293 with M4R-dreadd 20x
mrrd-gfp barrest-cherr cno 10 min 20x_Overlay copy
HEK293 with M4R-dreadd 20x

This week, I had a lot of difficulty in handling the mice. Being my first experience with animal work, watching the mice anxious and struggle while we held them down was hard. I am still pretty unsure about how I feel about animal work (if I HAVE to do it to save my research in the future, I will) but I definitely need more exposure and practice with them.

Overall, this lab taught me a lot, even if some days were stressful and  tiring. I feel like I learned and enhanced many skills in the process (primer design, restriction analysis, cell culture, cloning, western blot, cAMP assay), and got a feel for the lab at the same time. Through the course of these past two rotations, I have met some really smart and dedicated people. In the end, I am grateful to have had this opportunity.

Two months in: Last day in cancer lab

Today marks the last day of my first laboratory rotation. I want to pen down a few things that I learned and experienced during my time in the cancer lab:

  • Starting fresh in a new field of research was challenging at first, but got interesting once the different pieces of the puzzle were pieced together along the way.
  • Understanding the nitty-gritty of the investigation entails failures, failures, failures, followed by lots of optimizations and practice. Patience and perseverance is the key.
  • Staying positive and motivated throughout the journey can go a long way. My mentor/ senior grad student in the lab is one of the most optimistic people I’ve met in recent times.
  • Almost always, grad students manage multiple projects at the same time. It is essential to have a main project (or two) and a few side projects to keep the lab active, and research moving forward.
  • Taking a computing course along with the Biochemistry course has kept my study diverse and helped me broaden my thought bubble. At the same time, it has contributed to an additional pressure of having to take exams and submit assignments frequently (which I don’t want to be doing a lot of at grad school).
  • I nearly broke my arm while working with the french press for cell lysis (it really is a workout in itself!)
  • Having flexible working hours in the lab was good, but there were days when I took this for granted and ended up being awfully lazy. I am still learning to implement a fixed schedule for the weekdays to increase my productivity through the week.
  • Caffeine addiction is a real thing. I now even have a brew preference to satisfy my taste buds and more importantly, my brain.

Orientation week: What do I want out of grad school?

The first week of grad school was intense and exhaustive with all kinds of information being tossed at us from all directions. We started off with a formal introduction to the school, the department, and all the resources available at our disposal like the libraries, mentors, health benefits, and so on. Besides all this, a main objective of the orientation week was to decide the first two labs that we are interested to rotate in. The process involved meeting with several professors, going on lab tours, meeting other grad students and evaluating if a lab was a good fit for us or not. Although I knew the direction of research I wanted to pursue, discovering so many options and learning about cool new research areas left me wondering if I really knew what I wanted to be doing for the next five years! Right now, I feel like a first grader starting school for the first time and constantly being exposed to many things I never knew existed.

Grad school 101 - What I don't know
Grad school 101 – What I don’t know

Being in a big umbrella program, there are ten different training groups to choose from. First year graduate students pick four labs within any of the groups to rotate in during their first year. This is very different from a departmental graduate program where a student can only rotate in labs within that respective department. After all the decisions and evaluations, I have chosen my first two labs for the semester and I am looking forward to be officially starting next week.

This process has made me question some decisions that I’ve taken in the last couple of years. “What do I want out of grad school?” seems to be the most significant one. Before beginning my journey, I knew that I wanted to train to be a good scientist, learn how to think, develop skills unique to my field, master techniques that will make me employable, learn how to learn, and be an overall well rounded researcher. Now I’m not sure if there is a definite answer to the question. It is something that I’d have to figure out on-the-go.