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010: Are you too old to go back to school?

Congratulations!  You just decided that you want to be a scientist, and spend your career doing research in a biomedical lab.  That would be great news, except that you’re past thirty and you have no training.  As the excitement fades and reality hits, you ask: “Am I too old to go back to school?”

You’re never too old to science

You're never too old to go back to school! Photo Credit:
Dr. Thigpen’s research on anti-aging therapies were effective, but difficult to control. This photo shows the last time he was seen in public before reverting to a zygote.

This week, we face some tough questions about what to do when your career path didn’t take you straight to your dreams.  You may come from another career or had a family first, but now you’re convinced you want to join the ranks of scientific society.  It’s going to be a long road: biomedical scientists reach their first real jobs at a median age of 37.  Should you even bother if you’re just getting started at 35?

We put these tough questions to Robin Chamberland, Assistant Professor and Director of Clinical Microbiology at St. Louis University Hospital.  Dr. Chamberland went back to school in her 30s, and successfully navigated her way to a faculty position at a top-tier university.  We ask whether she faced discrimination or other challenges because of her age or family commitments, and she shares some insights for others on the same path.

Whiskey is the water of life

whiskey sours
There’s so much fruit, the Drosophila declared our birthdays a National Holiday!

While we’re pondering these existential questions of life and meaning, we’re also celebrating our birthdays!  We sample some tasty homemade Whiskey Sours with a generous helping of fruit.  Listen closely for the secret ingredient…

And this year, we ask for one present each: we’d love for you to share the Hello PhD podcast with one friend, and to leave a rating or review on iTunes.  Both of those simple gifts help to broaden the conversation and make Hello PhD a podcast for scientists and the people who love them.  Thank you!


The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett

NIH Report on Biomedical Training

009: Research and Prelims and Quals, Oh My!

It’s year two, and you’re just hitting your stride in the lab.  You’ve finally got classes behind you, so now it’s time to drop the books and make some magic at the bench, right!  Nope, now it’s time for prelims!

Will Work for Fish

dolphin by Niklas Morberg
It’s a metaphor, people. Dolphins rarely earn PhDs in captivity.

That perennial favorite of graduate training rears its ugly head in this week’s show.  Whether your department calls them prelims, quals, or something else, you know it as the dreaded “test” between you and your PhD candidacy.  Our question came from Katiria, who wrote:

Hello Joshua and Daniel,

Great Podcast! It is really fun to listen to it during the tedious bench work.  

I will be taking my prelim at some point this semester, and I was wondering how can I increase productivity. I want to have data, but I need to read a lot. At the same time, I need to focus in the parts of the projects that are producing. It seems overwhelming at times. How did you do it?


We take a few minutes to consider the somewhat dubious value of the modern preliminary exam, and think about some better options for testing a student’s readiness.  But in the end, we give Katiria the advice she probably didn’t expect but definitely needs.

Tell us about your prelims!  Are they designed to “weed out” students, or is it a garden party?  Do you write a grant on your own project, or simply fill out a multiple choice questionnaire covering the first two years of classes?  We love a good horror story, so pass those along, too!

Galileo Finger-o (Magnifico-o-o-o-o)

Also this week, Josh finds deep scientific meaning in Galileo’s time under house arrest, and uncovers the final resting place of a couple of his fingers and teeth.  It’s that kind of hard-hitting scientific journalism you can only get from Hello PhD and/or Wikipedia (which is where we got it.)

galileo's final salute
This really redefines the phrase “Give ’em the finger!”

On the ethanol front, we sample Wetherburn’s Tavern Bristol Ale from Williamsburg, VA.  It’s a malty, hoppy voyage through history and back, with very little sense of direction.  


008: Fight for Your Right to #GradInsurance

Imagine waking up on a Friday morning, grabbing a cup of coffee and sitting down to check your email.  What’s this?  A note from your employer stating that your healthcare coverage will expire in 13 hours and it’s up to you to find insurance.  Have a great day!  Hope you weren’t feeling pregnant!

#Mizzou #GradInsurance


That scenario played out in real life for graduate students at the University of Missouri last week, when an email from the Associate Vice Chancellor stated that their health insurance subsidy would be cancelled immediately to comply with new rules in the Affordable Care Act (lovingly known as “Obamacare”).

The students took to Twitter, using #GradInsurance to raise awareness of their situation and pushing hard on the administration to explain, and reverse, their decision.  In this week’s show, we unfold the timeline, and talk to Rachel Zamzow (@RachelZamzow) a neuroscience graduate student affected by the change.  It’s a powerful story of students standing up for themselves and making a difference on campus.

Beer ghosts want #gradinsurance too!
Is this the ghost of Tank 7, or just a tissue that I drew a face on? Find out this fall on the new TV series “Ghosts I Think I Saw But I Was Drinking So Maybe I Imagined It.” Brought to you by The History Channel.

Don’t Cross the Streams!

Also in this episode, we talk about the explosive history of laparoscopic surgery, and we inadvertently attract poltergeists to the studio by drinking Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale from Boulevard Brewing.  We managed to capture photographic evidence of the specter before exorcising the sound board. Spooky!



The initial announcement of cancelled insurance
The Twitter fire that ensued
The students’ formal statement of demands
The reversal
Audio of Chancellor Loftin credit Geoff West of The Missourian
University of Missouri’s Graduate Professional Council


007: From Quiet Lab to Super-Fab!

Some labs feel like a party – there’s music playing, post-docs chatting, and grad students running from bench to bench setting up experiments. But what if you land in a spot that feels more like a morgue than a living laboratory? Co-workers keep their eyes on their benches, every ear is covered by headphones, and you end up eating lunch alone in the break room.

Do you work in a quiet lab, or one where people gather around to point at your experiments?
The lab that does tissue culture together stays together. Or has a serious contamination problem. One of those two things.

Silence is Au

Working in a lab environment where everyone maintains monk-like vows of silence can be alienating, but it’s also bad for the science. Researchers who aren’t talking aren’t teaching or learning, and your training as a student or post-doc can really suffer.

“Quiet Lab Syndrome” was the problem we faced in this week’s episode. “Sue” (name changed to prevent her lab-mates from finding out they’re boring…) asked:

I just started in a research lab, and I have an issue. The lab I joined is super quiet. For most of the day, people just do their experiments, sit at their desks, focused on their computer screens, and there is very little conversation and communication. I’m new to the lab, so I’m finding it very difficult to learn about what’s going on, hear about people’s projects, etc since there is very little informal conversation going on. Not to mention, I feel a little jealous that some of my peers joined labs where people play music, go out for beers, and are generally pretty social with one another. I think the science is interesting, and I really like the PI, but the silence makes it difficult to pick up on things, and makes the lab generally a less pleasant place to be all day. What should I do?

We’ve got tips for understanding the cause of the quiet, and some advice for helping you break the ice.

Is there a doctor on the plane!?

Also in this episode, we talk about whether flaunting your PhD on hotel and airline reservations earns you better treatment. If you’ve ever put “Dr.” on the reservation and they rolled out the red carpet, let us know so we can exploit those businesses ourselves!

For ethanol, we enjoy the rich, caramel goodness of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale and discover both the violent and adorable origins of Toxoplasma gondii. Here’s a picture of the fuzzy little vector known as a Gundi.

If you are what you eat, this little critter must live on marshmallows and dandelion fluff!
If you are what you eat, this little critter must live on marshmallows and dandelion fluff!


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Fireballs are another good option for dealing with critics.

006: Haters Gonna Hate; Dealing with Critics

It has happened to all of us: you finish a solid day of work at the bench,  and as you head out the door to your well-earned R&R, the PI catches you and lays on a speech about how you need to spend more time in lab.

Fireballs are another good option for dealing with critics.
Don’t try this at home… try it in lab! Cool explosions are the whole reason you became a scientist in the first place!

Everyone’s a critic

In one instant, all that confidence and satisfaction you felt goes up in flames like Parafilm in a Bunsen burner.

In this week’s episode, we tackle a tough question from a second-year grad student who is tired of colleagues, mentors, and family members sharing their opinions about how she should spend her time.  How can she, and YOU, deflect the criticism and stop the haters from stealing your joy?

Susie asks:

It seems like everyone, especially in a lab setting, has an opinion about how I should spend my time and resources. It shouldn’t bother me so much, but even after a great and busy day, an offhand comment about how I should be doing more/better/faster can make me feel kind of useless. How have you each learned to rise above questioning and perceived condescension from the people you work with, or even friends and family?

Before you even start that battle, we talk about how to make sure you can win it.  We’ll also give you tips about how to manage your PI’s expectations and find a work-life-balance that actually works for your life.


Make time for the things you love

Next, we hear from a grad student who wants to make time for science outreach and education opportunities, but doesn’t think his faculty mentor will support his time outside of the lab.  It’s another great example of finding the time to do the work you love while still pursuing solid laboratory training.

Shawn writes:

One of the many things I want to continue to do during grad school is to volunteer and become part of outreach programs. I acknowledge I am going to have a lot on my plate very soon , but I still want to volunteer and continue doing some form of work that likens the after-school teaching I was doing [during my undergrad]. Is it feasible to find time for outreach while in graduate school?


Getting smart

Finally, Daniel gets some scientific support for his acerbic sense of humor, and we put another punch on our “Frequent Hipster” cards with the Pinner Throwback IPA from Oskar Blues.  It’s a healthy dose of hops with a side of sarcasm.  Delicious!

This week’s resources and references:

Micrographia on Wikipedia
Gutenberg Project Ebook of Micrographia

2002 Letter from Mu-ming Poo to his lab:

To all lab members:

Over the past several months, it has become clear to me that if there is no drastic change in the lab, Poo lab will soon cease to be a productive, first-rate lab that you chose to join in the first place. Lab progress reports over the past six months have clearly shown the lack of progress in most projects. One year ago, when we first moved to Berkeley, I expressed clearly to everyone my expectation from each one in the lab. The most important thing is what I consider to be sufficient amount of time and effort in the lab work. I mentioned that about 60 hr working time per week is what I consider the minimal time an average successful young scientist in these days has to put into the lab work. There may be a few rare lucky fellows like Florian, who had two Nature papers in his sleeve already, can enjoy life for a while and still get a job offer from Harvard. No one else in the lab has Florian’s luxury to play around.

Thus I am imposing strict rules in the lab from now on:

  1. Every one works at least 50 hr a week in the lab (e.g., 8+ hr a day, six days a week). This is by far lower than what I am doing every day and throughout most of my career. You may be smarter or do not want to be as successful, but I am not asking you to match my time in the lab.
  1. By working, I mean real bench work. This does not include surfing on the computer and sending and receiving e-mails for non-scientific matters unrelated to your work (you can do this after work in the lab or at home), and excessive chatting on nonscientific matters. No long lunch break except special occasions. I suggest that everyone puts in at least 6 hr concentrated bench work and 2+ hr reading and other research-related activity each day. Reading papers and books should be done mostly after work. More time can be spent on reading, literature search and writing during working hours when you are ready for writing a paper.
  1. I must be informed in person by e-mail (even in my absence from the lab) when you are absent from the lab for a whole day or more. Inform me early your vacation plan. Taking more than 20 working days out of one year is the maximum to me. In fact, none of you are reporting any vacation and sick leave on your time sheet (against the university rule, although I have been signing the sheets), but you know roughly how many days you were not here.

On the whole, I understand and accept the fact that you may not fulfill the above requirements all the time, due to health reasons, occasional personal business. But if you do not like to follow the rules because it is simply a matter of choice of life style, I respect your choice but suggest you start making plans immediately and leave the lab by the end of January 31. I will do my best to help you to locate a lab to transfer or to find a job.

If you do accept the conditions I describe above, I am happy to continue to provide my best support to your work, hopefully more than I have done in the past. I will review the progress of everyone in the lab by the end of June of 2002. I expect everyone to have made sufficient progress in the research so that a good paper is in sight (at least to the level of J. Neuroscience). If you cannot meet this goal at that time, I will have to ask you to prepare to leave my lab by the end of August.