Simple Beginnings

To those of you at Vandy, you are familiar with our Simple Beginnings, white coat ceremony. For those of you not here, you should know that we celebrate the beginning of our students’ scientific journeys with an event that equally congratulates the start of their graduate experience while also highlighting the importance of their position in the community. It is open to friends and family, and it is one of my favorite parts of the year! This year, one of our older graduate students delivered a meaningful speech that highlights the transition to graduate school. I thought it was worth posting, both to repeat this for our first years and to highlight the journey for prospective students. Enjoy!
– by Jennie Shuman

Good afternoon everyone! My name is Jennie Shuman, I’m in the Cover lab, and I study Helicobacter pylori and microbe-host interactions. I guess I’m officially a second year IGP student now that y’all are here. Congratulations and welcome! Family and friends, thank you for coming out to support your great students, and students, just take a second and look out at all the people who have come to see your white coat ceremony – these are the people who are going to stick by you for the next 5.7 years regardless of how your cell culture is going, and remind you that there is a life outside of lab.

So, I’m supposed to give you the low down on what this next year or so will look like.

Spoiler alert – it’s going to be hard, and you’re likely to be challenged in different ways than you’re used to. To your family and friends, it may seem that you’re less available – for many of you, especially those traveling from further away to come live in Nashville, it’s no longer plausible for you to go home every time you want some good cooking. To each of you students, it may seem like both your dream come true and a nightmare – you’ve got all of these interesting projects to pursue, and you’re actually getting PAID to do your research… but you’re limited by the same 24 hours a day that everyone has, in which you’re supposed to fit research, preparing for and going to class, self care, eating, and maybe even sleeping. Honestly, time management is going to be your best friend in this first year of Graduate school. 

Graduate school is a wholly different experience from undergrad. Typically, the undergrad experience rewards people’s ability to quickly memorize information and regurgitate it in response to specific questions. If you can do that, you get a good grade and move on. However, in this last year I’ve learned that my critical thinking skills, not my memorization ability, are most highly valued. While both are very important, you’re here to grow your ability to read and digest new and complex information, to learn how to understand previous data and use it to design new experiments, and to synthesize entirely new ideas as you discover things that no one else has known before. Your classes here will focus a lot more on concepts and a lot less on rote memorization, and you’ll probably find that some professors like to ask you exam questions like, “We don’t really know the answer to this question yet, but based on what we learned in class, what do you think about such-and-such?” Both times I saw this type of question on Roger Chalkley’s exams, my palms immediately started sweating… But I had to learn to just take a deep breath, and do my best. In the end, I made it through, and you will too – just be present, prepared, and ready to think a lot, and you’ll do just fine in the classes. 

Actually, rotations were much more intimidating to me than the classes were, especially since I only had research experience in one lab prior to coming here. I had no practice in adapting to new scientific questions or climates, and though that’s probably not the case for most of you, I think the things I learned are still beneficial to realize.

The first thing I learned is, you should be on your best game during these 6-7 week rotations, because this is your chance to impress your potential future boss. However, the labs you’re rotating in are also going to be on THEIR best game, because they want you to join. I also found out that these people LOVE when you ask them questions – seriously, when you ask a professor or fellow lab member about their project, they’re usually super hyped to tell you everything you want to know and more. Pro tip: asking well-thought-out questions during your rotations will help highlight you as an interested and attentive student, so it’s worth spending a little time to come up with educated questions.

Lastly, I discovered that all of my peers valued different things for their thesis labs, which is perfectly okay – there’s no right or wrong way to find your thesis lab, and different things work for different people. Some of my friends wanted to work with a very specific organism or tool, some wanted a particular lab culture, some wanted to be in a specific department, and some wanted a mentor that would accept and forgive their mistakes easily. While these are all important and the ideal situation would be a lab where you love the science, the people, the classes, and the mentor, that’s going to be hard to find. I know people who made sheets of color-coded notes and ratings for dozens of categories they thought were important for each rotation, and then consulted that excel sheet religiously as the deadline to pick a thesis lab drew near. I know people who just went with their gut feeling. I also know people who waited until 4:30 pm on the Friday when decisions were due to make a final lab choice. Regardless of how you organize and process all the information about your rotations, it’s going to make it much easier to pick your thesis lab in the end if you figure out what your priorities are early on, and pursue those throughout your rotations. Each rotation is likely going to be a whole different ball game than the rotation before – new literature, new techniques, new people, and a new professor. Take care when picking rotations, but don’t stress over it too much, and don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and try something completely new.

The process of picking rotations actually reminded me a lot of conversations I had in middle school. Suddenly I saw my well-spoken, confident peers gathered in small groups, bent over someone’s phone, frantically whispering things like “Dr. So-and-so said this in their email – what do you think that means?” “Ugh, when they said they were happy to interview me for a potential rotation, they ended the sentence with a period and NOT an exclamation mark. Do you think that’s because they already have someone else in mind for this rotation?” and “What should I say back? Does this sound too casual, or should I go for a more laid back approach?” I mean, the rotation process really feels like dating – you spend time in a lab for two months, and then you thank that PI, say goodbye, and move on to your next choice of lab. And then at the end of rotations, you decide which lab you want to “marry” for the next few years, and after you propose to your favorite lab and they accept, you have to go and break up with the other labs, and it’s the whole spiel – listen, I really enjoyed the time we spent together. It’s totally not you, it’s me. But I’m hoping we can still be friends and collaborate together in the future? 

But rotation stuff and classes aside, if I could give you one piece of advice for your graduate experience, it’s this: find something or someone that reminds you that there is life – including happiness and success – outside of lab. It’s so easy to get caught up in the science-y things you love, especially when you’re surrounded by like-minded peers who are excited to show you the projects they’re passionate about. Before you realize it, you can be putting all of your time – or worse, your emotions and your sense of self-worth – into a project. But science is a fickle thing – sometimes it works, and for just a few minutes you know something that no one else in the world knows, and that high is amazing… but sometimes it doesn’t work, and if you’ve invested everything you have into a single project that isn’t working, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Taking care of yourself in this really fun but high-pressure environment is so important. You’ve probably heard of, and maybe even felt, burnout, but we’ve gotta last an average of 5.7 years, y’all! So, whether it’s a significant other, a close group of friends, a pet, or even some plants, find something to help balance your life. For example, we have an adorable 1 year old puppy named Eevee – so let me know if you ever need puppy cuddles or want to play fetch, because she would be happy to oblige. 

In conclusion, you’re embarking on a long, difficult, and exciting journey – with many, many people to help you. You’ll find friends in the most unexpected situations, learn a ton of new techniques, read what feels like hundreds of papers, and learn amazing things about the biology of our world – and you’ll be doing it with this huge crowd of supporters! Family and friends, we may need an extra measure of patience these next few years, cause at times it’s gonna get crazy and we’ll probably get a little bit crazy too. We thank you in advance. So, to all of you….

Good luck!

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