I participated in the Stowers Summer Scholars program this summer and have gotten a good amount of advice from people I’ve talked to during its duration. Upon reflecting on my summer, I have decided to share a list of the advice, information, and realizations I have found valuable.
1. You need to figure out what you value in life and from that, determine how much time you spend on lab work vs. personal life. I met scientists in my lab that have different priorities, and found that this variability is natural/healthy. Unsurprisingly, some academics may still be dismissive of those that spend less time on lab work, and that kind of attitude is deeply ingrained in academia.
2. Reading scientific articles on top of doing lab work is pretty hard to do and requires concerted effort. The postdoc who I worked with said that he wished he knew the literature around his research topic better, and I felt similarly. There weren’t that many natural ways to incorporate reading the literature into my daily life at the lab and I felt that the lab work to reading ratio was not where I wanted it to be. A good tip that I have heard was told to me anecdotally by a postdoc at my lab, who told me of a colleague who would go to a coffee shop and read articles for several hours every Friday.
3. What makes a good scientist? It’s hard to say since everyone has their own definition. After asking a few people at the lab this question, I found some overarching traits that good scientists exhibit. For instance, good scientists exhibit novelty of thought and rigor of thought/experimentation. They are usually inquisitive and deeply interested in their topic. A tip that my postdoc gave me was that good experimenters, on top of creating sound hypotheses, will try to think of creative ways to disprove them in order to get the most airtight conclusions.
4. As for good collaborators, they are usually open to talking about their data and findings, and are not very shady. However, there’s always a balance to strike between sharing too little and too much information.
5. A red flag that indicates you should not do research is when your bad days start outnumbering the good days. The point at which you stop doing research, if at all, depends on your willingness to give up things in life that may otherwise be important to you, like hobbies or attending important events.
6. Academia is a place that demands a lot of internal motivation. You may not get much external validation for reaching certain milestones proportional to the amount of work required to reach them.
7. One thing that my postdoc regretted was that he didn’t work in a ranch in Wyoming, backpack through Thailand, or anything else that would have been a way to do something other than academics before he started graduate school.
8. In grad school, your advisor can absolutely make or break your experience.
9. Another really important takeaway from the program was that I got exposed to how scientists ask and address research questions. As I am working with Professor Ragkousi with a specific model organism, I feel I have been going about thinking about research wrong: I have been thinking about what questions to ask that can be answered using a model organism as opposed to starting in the other direction. I should instead find out what my research interests are broadly and then design questions that are related to those interests. Once you’re there, you can think about whether your model organism has the tools to answer the questions you are interested in.
Accordingly, I was given a set of criteria that could be helpful for designing a good research question:
Is it something you can realistically work on?
Do others care about it?
Do you care about it?
10. You should feel confident in what you have done and not let credentials get you down. You should be able to advocate for your research and stick up to your advisor when necessary.
11. There are a lot of cool ways in which researchers can engage the public. In talks that cover a subject but are designed for a public audience, people can meet researchers in the middle and impress you with their understanding of the material covered.
12. My time at Stowers was probably a lot less structured than what I would have experienced in an REU, both in and out of the lab.
13. Mentoring an undergraduate is hard. My postdoc reflected that you can always have a plan prior to meeting a mentee, but until you start working with them, you won’t have an understanding of their specific research interests and skills. Those factors are essential in designing a realistic 2 month project.
14. It seems that bioinformatics skills are pretty sought after in the world of biology research.
15. Quantitative biology is vaguely defined, and you don’t necessarily need a math degree to do cool quantitative biology.
16. Just because something is in a research article doesn’t mean it’s true. Also, just because a research article is published doesn’t mean it’s well-written.
17. At least in the lab that I worked in, people are super nice/friendly and willing to talk about their research. I personally get anxious about talking to people about their research when I don’t understand it. However, it seems like this anxiety is somewhat unfounded.
18. I talked a little bit about giving presentations with my postdoc and he gave some good advice. When putting together a presentation for a lab meeting, basically all slides should have titles and the titles should be descriptive enough such that if someone spaces out during the slide, they can read the title and know exactly what you’re discussing.
19. A lot of scientists that I talked to at Stowers like iBiology, which is a video series on Youtube that talks about biological topics. I’m trying to watch more of their videos now, because they lay out information clearly about topics that could be otherwise hard to learn about.
20. Stowers is a really great place to work. They have a ton of resources and attractive positions for researchers, as well as awesome research. Though I only worked in the Gibson Lab this summer, there are also a lot of other really cool investigators who worked with other Summer Scholars. For example, I was able to talk a lot with scholars in the Rohner Lab who useMexican tetras to answer questions about metabolism and evolution, and the Si Lab, which researches functional amyloids and how they might be related to memory.
21. When talking to researchers about what would be good steps moving forward, they suggested that I work with a different model system. I think I will try to get some experience working with organoids this next summer or Drosophila, but that all depends on how things pan out.
If anything, this experience reaffirmed my interest in biological research and gave me the opportunity to explore cnidarian evo-devo, which I find to be an extremely interesting and fun field to work in. I thought it was super cool that through the program, I could just casually talk to experts on regeneration, developmental biology, and coral biology about what they were doing and see the animals they were working with. I think the research that is done in the Gibson Lab is something that I could easily see myself doing long-term, but at the same time, I would like to incorporate my quantitative interests into my research more.
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience. It was weird being alone in an unfamiliar city doing research but I got through it and I am proud that I was able to do so. If anything, it would have been nice to explore the city more. Balancing mental health, research, and other tasks can be hard in that kind of setting, but I thought I learned/grew a good amount from it.
If you’re interested in working with Nematostella and/or coral, the Gibson Lab is a great place to apply to. Unfortunately, corals are hard to keep in a lab setting and as such, there isn’t a way to work with them as we do with Nematostella. However, by next year I’m hopeful that the Lab will have made progress, so doing coral research while also being far from the coast as an undergraduate is a real possibility!