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Mentor torment

December 7, 2010

by Jennifer Phillips, Ph.D.

Time passes in the research lab marked by scientific conferences, submission deadlines, and project completion. There's not much awareness of the academic calendar for those of us who don't teach regularly, but from time to time we host a new graduate student for a 12-week stint that corresponds to our academic quarter system, which tends to wake us up to the fact that we actually work at a University (well, ok, that Oregon Duck Football thing is kind of hard to miss, too).

In most of the science disciplines, incoming Ph.D. students spend their first year 'rotating' through different labs they think they might be interested in. They usually complete a short, focused research project during this time, but it's generally less about gathering scientific data than it is about an opportunity for the student to gather general information about the projects and personnel in a given lab and determine whether it would be a good place in which to pursue Ph.D. thesis work. Similarly, the lab personnel use this time to judge the performance and compatibility of the student, and at the end of the first year students select a research group to join. 

Our lab had one such student-I'll call her "RS"-- for the first term of this year's rotation cycle, which is now in its final week. RS completed a very nice project in line with the Usher focus of the lab, and will give an oral presentation mere hours from now summing up the results obtained in the past 12 weeks. And herein lies the first great hurdle of first year Grad students: the bane of the short-format talk. These oral presentations are 10-12 minutes in length, during which time the speaker is required to give enough background on the topic to give their specific project relevance, present the results of their particular experiments (assuming there are any), draw conclusions from their findings, relate them back to the big picture, and graciously thank the members of the lab who helped them complete the work. This is followed by questions from the audience. Sounds simple, right? Except that for the neophyte researcher, it can be completely overwhelming and terrifying. Scientific presentations are different from nearly every other kind of public speaking, especially in the short format talk. Words must be chosen prudently, for maximum precision and impact. The data presented must be explained clearly and credibly, and the speaker must have sufficient grasp of the material to do this and field questions at the end of the talk, possibly from crotchety skeptics who didn't buy a word of it. It's a humbling experience, and it's hard to do well right out of the gate, which is why everyone in my lab has been working overtime to whip our little RS into good shape for her presentation. 

Frankly, it hasn't been easy going, for any of us. RS did great work on her project, and actually has some pretty cool data to talk about, but she's had trouble putting her work in context with the larger lab focus, namely our exploration of the molecular basis of Usher syndrome using zebrafish. There's no denying that this is a daunting topic. Understanding Usher syndrome requires absorbing some amazingly complex cell and molecular biology, and it would be unreasonable to expect a student at the beginning of her scientific training to take so much on board without a struggle. Nevertheless, while one shouldn't expect a perfectly polished, Nobel-laureate caliber talk from a first year Grad student, it serves as a useful vehicle for facing down the second great hurdle most of these newbies face: changing from informational learning to investigative learning. Think about it: every scholastic experience, from kindergarten through four years of college, is about absorbing canonical information from a variety of sources-books, video, instructors-all filling students' heads with facts to be memorized and related to other, previously memorized facts. Training to be a professional scientist begins with the realization that, while there are still many facts to be learned, YOU, the researcher, are now required not just to learn them, but to vet them, and eventually, to produce them yourself. It's a pretty significant paradigm shift, and one that a lot of students struggle with. 

That's where our intrepid RS is now: at the beginning of learning to question...everything. At the beginning of the realization that overstating a result, or putting too much stock into a hypothesis, or any number of other credulous rookie mistakes, can get you into big trouble. So we've been listening to her fun through practice talks, spending hours poring over every PowerPoint slide, nitpicking her every word, hammering her on the need to back up or back off her often overstated claims. Would it be simpler to take it easier on her and just let her give the talk she wants to give? After all, she did great work at the lab bench, got along well with everyone else in the research group, and generally had a good rotation experience. Is this 11th hour torment really necessary? 

In my view, we'd be doing her no favors in the long term by giving her a pass on a sub-par presentation. We do have to torment her, constructively, just a little, because this is part of the training. Because most scientists will only ever get to work on one very tiny piece of a very big puzzle, and understanding the background and relevance of the work is a huge part of being able to formulate a scientifically and financially tenable project. Moreover, scientists who do good work but can't effectively talk to other people about it tend to have a much more difficult time getting support for their ideas. 

So, while I remain sympathetic to the enormity of her task, I will continue to try to impress upon RS the importance of choosing the best images and the best words to go with them. She may be stressed out, frustrated, and relieved when it's finally over, but maybe the challenges she's meeting now will make her next talk a little easier to get through. And maybe, just maybe she'll decide that a project focusing on a complex disease like Usher syndrome, and coworkers who challenge her to be precise and focused in communicating science might provide the best environment for her scientific training. 
I hope so, because we need more talented researchers working on Usher syndrome, now and in the future. We need fresh perspectives and innovative ideas that will be grounded enough in good, rigorous science to withstand criticism and contribute to our growing body of knowledge about what happens in this disease and what tools we can develop to stop it. We academic Usher researchers are not only in the business of discovering new things about the disease, but also of discovering and cultivating new talent. For that reason we need to keep our intellectual standards high, to continue to hammer prospective contributors on getting it right, all the way down to the nitty gritty. This is not just to benefit lab productivity in the short term, but to benefit the entire research field, and, most importantly, the Usher families who are relying on us to come up with something to help them. 

Whether RS, in the fullness of time, will become the next great Usher researcher, or indeed whether she will even choose to join our lab remains to be seen. Whatever the case, we have provided her with the first exposure to Usher syndrome research, and the rigor and critical thinking necessary to succeed in this field. Furthermore, we have added one more to the total number of people in the world who know a bit about how Usher syndrome works and what's at stake for the families affected by this disorder. And, when RS delivers what I'm sure will be a completely awesome talk, she'll use her 10-12 minutes to enlighten a few other people who, until today knew nothing about Usher syndrome. There's no way to predict the potential impact of these presentations on anyone in attendance, but this is how new ideas and collaborations are born. These students, these talk formats, provide yet another opportunity to spread the word and raise awareness of what we're all working so hard to conquer. 

Here's wishing everyone a joyous and peaceful holiday season.

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