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  • Michael Whaby

First Semester of Graduate School: Life as a biomedical PhD student

Updated: Jan 11

By Michael Whaby


Since creating this blog, I’ve always wanted to upkeep a theme of openness to new experiences and being malleable. This is because I believe that life often takes unpredictable paths—believe me, it does—and to make it, you must be able to adapt and learn in the face of change, hardships and challenges. During the past half-year or so, I feel like I’ve tested my malleability through the many transitions and challenges I’ve encountered.


After completing a Master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, I continued to teach short biology lessons online—this was how I made money throughout the Master’s program—and I also made this blog! I figured since I would be entering a PhD program soon (to read why I chose to pursue a PhD, click here), I could use the blog as a type of creative outlet, motivator, and a way to connect with and help people that might resonate with what I write.


The summer after the completion of the Master’s program was very chill. I was living in my hometown, near Pittsburgh. I had a lot of open time; I took that time to make some extra money and create a website (this one) to display the blog idea that I had been incubating. This time period also involved reading books to fuel my knowledge, ideas and curiosities—ultimately helping me write blog posts.


I mentioned that I was to be starting a PhD program soon. That didn’t just mean I was starting a new program; I was starting a new program at the Medical University of South Carolina. This meant moving over 10 hours (by car) south of where I had lived my whole life. And that “relaxing” time that I had alluded to earlier involved finding a place to live in another state, and then moving about a month before the program was to start. The move was stressful and tiresome, but we—my girlfriend and I—made it and got settled in Charleston, SC. The month after moving involved the beach, furniture hunting, and more writing and teaching while I still had the time.



Starting graduate school


August 19, 2019 was orientation day. After this day, classes started, and they didn’t stop. Class during the first semester was essentially an in-depth review of molecular biology pertaining to protein structure and function, genetics and cell biology. Alongside of these classes, we also had a research design and techniques course and other supplemental learning exercises that involved many group presentations on new and relevant research.


Life was starting to get busy and relatively routine again. Then, a few weeks into the semester, a hurricane came by Charleston—thankfully, no severe damage occurred during my very first hurricane experience. This was followed by the start of laboratory rotations. Looking back, ironically, the hurricane was like the calm before the storm. I had no classes during that week, which was like a mini vacation; however, things were about to get much, much busier once Dorian (the name of the hurricane) cleared out.



Lab rotations


For those that might not know, many graduate students in the sciences have to participate in three laboratory (lab from now on) rotations before entering a lab where they will finish their dissertation. For instance, the research area of my first lab rotation was in cancer biology. Specifically, the research focused on a protein called RAS, one of the most commonly mutated proteins in cancers.


The purpose of these rotations is to find a lab and mentor to spend the next 4-6 years with while completing a research thesis, hopefully publishing scientific literature, and building a career. The goal is to find a compatible lab and mentor—this should be a mutual agreement between both the student and the mentor, otherwise known as the PI (Principle Investigator).


Form the start of lab rotations, everyday followed this schedule:


  • 6:30am: leave for campus;

  • 7:00am-8:45am: study, complain, or a mixture of both;

  • 9-11am or -12pm: class;

  • 11:15am-between 4:30pm-5:30pm: lab;

  • 6:00pm-between 10:00pm-12:00am: gym, dinner and Netflix, study or read.

  • Weekends: highly variable.


This was a pretty big change from not having much of a schedule at all during the preceding summer. While the weather was still permitting, however, I still tried to make it to the beach as much as possible—one of my favorite things to do.


To orient time, I’m currently reaching the tail-end of the beginning of my 2nd rotation—this one focusing on Types I and II Diabetes involving regenerative medicine and immunology. The most taxing part of the lab rotations, for me, was how out of place, unknowledgeable, and utterly useless I felt at the start—always asking questions, not knowing where things are, not knowing how to use a specific piece of equipment or how to set up a specific experiment, etc. Professors accredit this feeling, that is apparently common to many students, to the steep learning curve (Fig. 1). What they mean is that while it may take some time to catch on, once you do, you’re golden.


Figure 1: The steep learning curve.

Malleability


I agree with the learning curve: after you adapt to the environment and techniques utilized in each lab, you become more comfortable. But I felt the same way at the beginning of the 2nd rotation as I did during the 1st. To which point, I want to revisit the word malleable. Malleability can be measured on a spectrum (Fig. 2), where most of us probably feel more comfortable closer to the lower end of the malleability spectrum.

Figure 2: The malleability spectrum.

Switching labs from the 1st to the 2nd lab rotation required another shift in malleability. I’m now becoming more comfortable in the 2nd lab. But I know just as soon as I start to feel a little confident, I will be nearing the 3rd lab rotation, and the malleability cascade (Fig. 3) will restart.

Figure 3: The malleability cascade.

Once a repertoire of skills is built up over time, though, I believe that the transitions from one phase to another become shorter and shorter. This is especially true for the length of the adaptation phase; the more skills we carry over to a new position, the less grueling the adaptation phase of malleability (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Becoming more malleable by carrying skills and knowledge from one position to the next.

I am confident that by the end of the 3rd lab rotation, I will be more comfortable—and malleable—upon finally entering a lab where I will finish my dissertation. But until then, I will try to learn as much as I can through the temporary discomfort and try to be as productive as possible for the mentors that I rotate with.



To be open to open to new experiences means to be a little bit comfortable being uncomfortable—momentarily, at least. It can be intimidating approaching things that you are not an expert at—or even good at. But think about the first time you rode a bike or drove a car, I bet you weren’t an expert during the first attempts. After years of experience, though, you can probably ride a bike or drive a car without even thinking about it. The main motivating force is that you wanted to be able to do these things; if you don’t want something enough, then you won’t put yourself through the discomfort of learning how to become better at it (to read more about this, click here).


When I get frustrated with school or lab rotations, I have to remind myself that this temporary discomfort is necessary to become more equipped for the life and career that I am striving for. The thing about science, and life in general, is that there will always be new knowledge created. So, if we can become more flexible with malleability, then we can become better learners, workers, and creators throughout life.

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