Monday, January 21, 2013

Advice for would be grad students. 001

Today's advice: Have a unique, transferable, skill.

 photo IMG-20130118-00379.jpg
Tools of the trade.

When I applied for the Co-op position which eventually lead directly into my PhD studies (no master's degree here), one of the things which certainly helped me out: Skill with Tissue Culture.

By which I mean: I had, during a brief research project during undergrad, gone out of my way to develop a skill set including animal handling, micro-dissection, tissue/organ bath work....and more specifically, all with smooth muscle tissues. It's no coincidence that the model system for my current project involves vessel culture in the Living Systems bath featured above.

So what do I mean by "have a unique, transferable skill?" You need to have something to bring to the table, that you would not have picked up in basic first and second year lab courses. You can do this either through working as a summer student/volunteer student in a research lab, or by taking advanced upper year lab courses. Finally, by completing a technique heavy honors thesis.

What kinds of skills am I talking about?
  • Tissue Culture
  • Cell Culture (more advanced than the brief intro to aseptic technique you may have gotten in Cell Bio)
  • Patch Clamping
  • Vector cloning/production
  • Protein/antibody purification
  • Real Time PCR
  • And many, many more
The majority of undergraduate students don't necessarily pick up more advanced skills than basic bench work. Or if you are exposed to a more unique technique, likely you only see/do it once. What you want here is a specific skills set to put on your CV that will set you aside from the herd.

Come back next Monday for more helpful advice for the would be grad student!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Francis Crick's 'The Gossip Test'

Recently I posted about what I want to be when I grow up. How such a loaded question can require different answers for different audiences. How it implies that we have to decide now, with ultimatum like holds, on what we want for the rest of our lives. How I'm nearly 25, and still happily am uncertain. More important might be the question, "Are you happy with what you are right now?"

Last week was the first week back to classes, and for me, my first week back to TAing. I TA an undergraduate Cell and Molecular Biology Class in the Bachelor of Health Sciences program here at UofC. Each year on the first day we ask students to answer the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And as this program, and the one it was derived from at my undergraduate institute, are often considered to be the elusive 'pre-med'; not surprizingly do upwards of half of the students answer "a medical doctor." It will be interesting if this fraction should change over the course of the sememester.

More interesting, only a tiny fraction of students answer "I don't know yet." It seems they may have things figured out better than myself.

Recently I came across some good advice for how to figure out what you should be doing. It comes from the memoir of the Nobel Prize winning Francis Crick (of Watson and Crick, discoverers of the structure of DNA). The book, titled "What Mad Pursuit." comes highly recommended for anyone interested in taking the research route, and focuses on the choices that lead to Crick's stunning career in molecular biology.

While I'm not quite done reading it, I cam across one particularly interesting piece of advice quite early on. "The Gossip Test." At first this may seem like an effective test to discover what your lab mates are saying about you behind your back. However, that was not Crick's aim in divising this test.

You see Crick was originally trained as a physicist, and it wasn't until he was 30 that he made the choice to switch to the life sciences. Proving of course that you're never to old to start something new. In picking his choice of feild, he asked himself what kinds of science did he find himself gossiping about. By which he means, what science do you rush home to blab about to the 'lay audiences' in your life. If you gossip about it, you have a true interest in it, and so that is what you should probably be working on.

Crick's gossip test narrowed the field between neurology and understanding the molecular basis of life. He passed on neuro, headed up to Cambridge and eventually found himself in the esteemed Cavendish Laboratory. Met up with Watson and Wilkins (that's right the duo wasn't just a duo) and the rest is scientific history.

So give yourself the "Gossip Test", this may let you know if you are headed in the right direction.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Books for Young Health Scientists : The Emperor of all Maladies

I read a lot of books, many types and genre`s of books, many shapes and sizes of books. Books written by authors living and dead, Canadian and abroad. And although I truly believe that reading in any way, shape or form is beneficial to anyone, I`d like to begin to read and highlight books which I feel are important for the young health scientist.

Firstly I`d like to address whom I am implying is the audience.

Young is a relative term, while for instance the students in the Bachelor of Health Sciences course which I TA are younger than myself, and certainly an apt audience for these posts (and subsequently these books) I certainly consider many people older than myself young. In the fields of research and medicine alike, you are considered quite young in your career long after I might consider you old in years.

As for Health Scientist, by this I mean anyone who considers themselves involved in furthering or applying the science of human health. Grad students, pharmacists, nurses, doctors of all types and many many many others; you should all remember that at the core of what you do is health science.

The first book I`d like to recommend, I`d like to do so in brief. Particularly because the book itself is a weighty tomb (both in pages and content); so I feel you time is better spent reading it, than reading what I have to say about it.

Siddhartha Mukherjee`s `The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer` is one of the most engrossing books I`ve ever read. Well worthy of the Pulitzer Prize proudly adorning the cover of my copy. SM takes you on a story through the life of cancer, made personal both by the stories told of patients as well as of his own fellowship as an oncologist. From the earliest diagnosis and prognosis of cancer in Egypt in 2500BC (`there is no treatment`) through the ages to modern medicine and beyond to a world of personalized, genome driven treatment; you will not want to miss a single word.

While the content may seem heavy at times, and particularly disheartening (especially when reading of the disfiguring radical mastectomy and chemotherapy intentionally pushed to the limit of human tolerance, both later found to be excessive without benefit) overall the book is one of hope. Our understanding of cancer has evolved quite rapidly over the past 50 years, from a disease of the 'black bile' to 'an altered version of our normal self'. We are now finally at a place where the vast combined effort of biological science is beginning to contribute to effective, specific, non-toxic treatments (herceptin and gleevec for instance).

Finally SM provides the reader a story which will change the way we think of cancer. If cancer is simply the cells of our body, following the most natural of directives "to grow and divide and pass genetic material to daughter cells", albeit in hyper-drive;  then perhaps we need to find a way to live with cancer rather than fight to destroy it. That the 'War on Cancer' need not be won (and likely cannot be) by total obliteration of all cancer cells; but rather by finding the right combination of treatments that a person with cancer can live out there normal lifespan despite it. Specifically, that a personalized medical regimen, tolerated without side effects, can be matched to each patient to keep cancer in check.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

This week in science: Cancer on the Brain

This week I will get back into the lab, back to TAing and give a research update seminar. Somewhere along the way I hope to find time to finish reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Because I've spent the last week or so engrossed with such an amazing book, I've found my mind dwelling on cancer (a topic well outside my field of work) more than usual.

Here's a couple interesting current stories, all related to cancer, whether it's prevention, early diagnosis or treatment; all worth reading.

Of course the beginning of the new year means about 1/4 of people (myself included) have set weight related resolutions (although that's not what I'm calling mine). Or maybe you set another popular goal, to lead a healthier lifestyle (quit smoking? drink less). Either way, you might be looking for a little inspiration to get you though the beginning stage and to the point where it becomes a habit. Cancer Research UK has collected a set of inspirational individuals who have had success with their goals in the past year, and subsequetly dramatically reduced their risk of developing some 40% of cancers which have been linked to unhealthy lifestyle. Check out one video here, or click on through for the other 3 inspirational stories.

On the other hand, what if your risk for cancer is something you cannot change? This New York Times article adresses the question of "is it better to know, genetically your risk?" It's written by a young woman, who's been knowingly BRCA1 positive for most of her life (a mutation which carries a 98% chance of developing breast cancer. With the advent of the $1000 dollar genome era, and websites such as offering to give your information about not only your genetic heredity but also you risk for a large list of diseases for as little as $100; you have to ask yourself, do you really want to know. Or, is ignorance really bliss?

And what if you already know. What's on the horizon, treatment wise? Out with the old conventional chemotherapies, cell and virus based therapies are in vogue in research groups around the world. Of particular interest: How about cytotoxic T-cells targeted at the tumor? Isolated in low quantity from patients, converted into stem cells to be rapidly multiplied; redifferentiated and and reintroduced. A home grown, autologous, army against cancer; personalized medicine at its best. Recent work out of Japan show's that we may be getting close to developing this kind of 'miracle' treatment, read about it at the BBC here.

A pair of Tcells attacking a cancer cell, image source.

That's all for this week, stay tuned for more review of the above mentioned book (spoiler I love it so far) and DFTBA.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Despite being, what many cultures/peoples/my parents, would call an adult; I still often ask myself "What do I want to be when I grow up?" As a 24 year old student, the answer to that question is surprisingly distant (Hey I'm looking at 3+ more years just in this degree).

I suppose I could just answer it with 'Scientist' and consider myself already there, but that's not as accurate as I'd like.

Over the recent holidays, while at home visiting family and friends (and far away from my academic cocoon) I was asked numerous times: "So what are you going to be when you're done all this school?" While when I pose this question to myself, I am often satisfied to know that I probably won't know the answer until I get there. When faced by it from my loved ones I fined that it demands a response more hopeful than "I'm just going to stay in school forever."

How do I currently answer it? "I'd like to stay in academia, become a profession, ideally with a 50/50 split between teaching and research." I neglect to mention that, statistically speaking, less than 20% of PhD graduates will ever get an academic position; and female students in particular are most likely to leave academia for work in the private sector. But really, I do (at least for the time being) want to be a prof. one day.

So you can imagine that I was very  interested to see "University Professor" listed as the single least stressful job of 2013.

Read about it from Forbes Magazine Here.

And needless to say, I wasn't the only one to think that assessment was dead wrong. As comments and emails poured, Forbes responded today with a "Top 10 Reasons Being a University Professor is Stressful" list.

Of particular interest on the list:
  • Personal vendettas by that anonymous 3rd reviewer
  • The constant fear of loosing your funding, and subsequently your lab
  • Success rates for those grant applications are at an all time low
  • Dealing with students, parents, and the administration for grading course work 'too low'
When you take all this (and more) into account you begin to wonder just why anyone would want this job. But, despite it all, most comments on that original article insist that they are doing work they love and wouldn't change it for the world.

So what do you want to be when you grow up? For now, I'm going to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and see where that takes me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2012 in Science Infographic by Nature

If you haven't scrolled through this animated infographic released by Nature to overview 2012 in science yet, then you absolutely should.

Additionally, here's a fun science blog I stumbled upon via twitter today. Check it out.

It's Okay to be Smart.

Finally, I got around to updating the about page for this blog today (yeah) click the link in the header bar above!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Resolutions Infographic

Welcome to 2013 here at ! Hopefully you are as excited as I am to kick off the new year with a bang. My question for you is: `Have you, like 50% of Americans, made a New Years Resolutions?'

I thought I'd share with you some statistics on the topic. I'll warn you it makes for a rather grim picture.

With such a low success rate, you might think why even bother? Well even if you don't complete your big resolutions, just setting yourself them may make you more likely to complete smaller goals throughout the year. For instance, this past year I set myself the challenge of running a half marathon (Check out all my 25 before 25 goals here) and although I didn't complete it, I did run over 200km, including 2 10km races and a Spartan Mud Race. All of that success was pushed by the bigger goal I set, and worked towards.

What advice do I have for you in setting goals for this upcoming year?
  1. Set measurable goals. Rather than 'Study more' say 'Study 1 hour in the library each day'
  2. Work your goals into your schedule. I put my goals right into my google calendar, with reminders coming to my phone. And repeated throughout the year.
  3. Share your goals publicly. People will often check up with you on your goals: "Hey you wanted to write a novel this year, how's that going?" Knowing other people car will drive you further.
  4. Check up on your success. Reevaluate your goals monthly or quarterly to see what needs more work.
  5. Set Big Goals. Cliched maybe, but shooting for the moon, you'll at least land among the stars.
Whether you set New Years Resolutions, Have a Bucket List, or set Birthday Goals, any type of well thought out goal setting is always beneficial. So good luck with your resolutions this year.

Feel free to share them in the comments!

Don't forget, to go over to my lifestyle blog to follow my day to day adventures for more fun, recipes, DIYs and more.
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