McArdle Blog ~ 11/14/2014

Q&A

Out with the old, in with the new

As the leaves on the trees crowding Picnic Point burn orange and red and waft away in the fall breeze, we catch up with a fair few members of the Cancer Biology graduate program  who defended their PhD thesis this past summer.

Our newly-minted PhDs look back on their graduate school careers, discuss their future plans and share what advice they have for the new Cancer Biology students who have embarked on their graduate school journeys.

Jamie Hadac, PhD

Jamie HadacUndergraduate institution: Knox College
Undergraduate major: Biology

What was the most important/meaningful lesson you learned in graduate school?

The size of this school can be intimidating, but it’s better to realize that it is a fantastic resource. There is no shortage of bright, friendly, and creative people. Connecting with all kinds of people on campus has been a driving force behind my research and professional development. You never know who will have monumental impacts on your life later on. Major things can come from chance meetings or even silly conversations at happy hour.

If you had to sum up your graduate school experience in 3 words, what would they be?

The time flies!

If you could change one thing about the graduate school process, what would it be?

Perhaps more focus, encouragement, and training for non-academic/non-professor careers. There’s a lot out there for someone with a Ph.D. and it isn’t always easy to see when you are in academia.

What advice do you have for younger graduate students?

Know your limits and have some outlets outside of the lab. Sometimes pushing yourself is great and necessary, but sometimes taking a break, like a bike ride or volunteering with kids can be better for you in the long run. Nothing good comes from constant stress and anxiety. A major part of my project popped into my head at the gym! And the perspectives and motivation I’ve experienced working with the local community has been invaluable.

What are your post-graduate school plans?

I am going to be a postdoc at the UC San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography, with a project at the intersection of developmental, marine, and cancer biology. No more Wisconsin winters!

What will you miss most about Madison?

My friends, but I’m sure they will be moving around a lot in the coming years too. I will also miss all the great state parks, lakes, and rivers in the area.

Any other thoughts?

Make the most out of your time in and out of the lab. Grad school provides a unique setting to develop both professionally and personally.

Nate Wlodarchak, PhD

Undergraduate institution: University of Illinois Urbana-ChampaignNate Wlodarchak
Undergraduate major: Plant Biology

What was the most important/meaningful lesson you learned in graduate school?

Don’t sweat the small stuff.  I know it seems simple but it is incredibly hard to do.  Sometimes things just don’t work on a given day because you forgot one small thing.  Sometimes things never work and you don’t know why.  Cherish the victories and don’t beat yourself up if you make a small mistake.  Take a deep breath and try again.

If you had to sum up your graduate school experience in 3 words, what would they be?

Lesson in Patience

If you could change one thing about the graduate school process, what would it be?

More freedom.  With funding being tight and the high pressure for publications, most of us forgot why we got into science in the first place—it’s awesome!  It’s hard to keep that child-like curiosity when grant deadlines loom, papers need publishing, and everyone is constantly told to “do more with less.” 

We as young scientists need to have the freedom to explore our own ideas because ultimately, those are what will change the future.  I can’t say I have a good solution, besides begging for more money, other than maybe we need to rethink the process and how many people really need to do it?

What advice do you have for younger graduate students?

Have some fun.  There is ALWAYS more science to be done.  That’s the privilege and the burden of working on the frontier of discovery.  The joy of being the first person in existence to discover something can easily be hampered by the fact that there’s more out there that you haven’t discovered.  It will never end and that’s why we do what we do. 

It’s important not to get wrapped up in desperation though.  Everyone has a life to live, and regardless of what noble and selfless reasons you might have as to why you do research, you need to take care of yourself.  The science will wait for you , but it takes more than two hands to do it…it takes a sound, focused mind.  If you can’t commit then you won’t succeed.  Take a day off.  Go sailing, go snowboarding, or just go for a walk in the park.  Breathe in the fresh air, release, and rejuvenate.  If your mind is clean and fresh you will have insights and ideas that will even surprise yourself.

What are your post-graduate school plans?
I’ll be doing a post-doc here at UW-Madison working on developing drugs for antibiotic resistant bacteria. 

What will you miss most about Madison?

Since I’m staying here, what I’ll miss most are all my friends who are leaving (or have left)!  You guys are the best!

Any other thoughts?

Never stop learning.  We live in such an amazing time where we can devote a third of our lives to just being formally educated.  It doesn’t stop when school is done though.  You keep learning until the day you die.  When I sit back and reflect on what I have learned, I am astounded not just at the knowledge I have gained, but how it has shaped me as a person.  Sit back and reflect on what life has taught you so far and then go out and learn some more.  Get lost in a book.  Go to a random lecture.  Have a deep philosophical discussion with your friends.  You won’t be sorry you did :)

Purin Charoensuksai, PhD

Undergraduate institution: Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand
Undergraduate major: Pharmacy

What was the most important/meaningful lesson you learned in graduate school?

This is probably to always look for improvement. Be content with anything which is satisfactory, but always think about ways it can be improved.

If you had to sum up your graduate school experience in 3 words, what would they be?

Heaven: This was my first impression. Not everyone, especially those from my country, would get this opportunity to go to graduate school in the US. Not only would I get one of the best educations the world has to offer, I would also get to explore the other side of the world.

Hell: Then this massive reality-check happened sometime along the 2nd-3rd year. I realized graduate school was so demanding. Besides, research left me feel like I was a shipwrecked man lost in the middle of the ocean, not sure which way was the right way to go, or if I would survive it at all.

Growth: Through all this, I feel like I have grown significantly. I still feel lost sometimes but I am not completely helpless. I learn to manage my time. I see what is really important for me. Above all, I know how to improve.

If you could change one thing about the graduate school process, what would it be?

I could not think of anything I want to change.

What advice do you have for younger graduate students?

  1. If you are not yet certain if graduate school is the right path for you, figure this out during the first few years. Once you are certain it is not right for you, be brave and quit early to save your time and minimize the damage. If you feel you belong in grad school, great, you can move on to step 2.  

  2. With the right mindset, your experience with grad school will be much less bumpy. Figure out what the requirement for the degree is, what your professor expects of you, what your committee looks for in you, and always ask yourself if the data you hold have publishable quality. If you are not certain about any of this, go to your committee, your PI or even other professors and ask them.  

I think everybody struggles in research. Your PI is trying to secure grants and maintain lab, while also having to find time to take care of his/her family. Your committee members have to raise you to meet the standard for a qualified researcher which is their duty to maintain for the department, the University and their ethical responsibility. Your colleagues are also trying hard to get interesting data, good papers and a timely graduation. Try to align all these expectations. Keep all sides in balance and, if you can, help others find theirs as well.

What are your post-graduate school plans?

Return to Thailand, work as a professor at Silpakorn University.

What will you miss most about Madison?

The calm of the city and friendliness of the people here.

Any other thoughts?

When you feel down, think about this.

Grad school is tough, but if you survive this, hardly anything else can take you down.

Best wishes to you all. Feel free to contact me if you need any help.

Jessica Lang, PhD

Jessica LangUndergraduate institution: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Undergraduate major: Genetics

What was the most important/meaningful lesson you learned in graduate school?

Graduate school and its following careers in some ways are very independent. Motivation must come from within, so I learned a lot of skills to keep on task.

If you had to sum up your graduate school experience in 3 words, what would they be?

Research and community

If you could change one thing about the graduate school process, what would it be?

More opportunities for professional development outside of research oriented classes.

What advice do you have for younger graduate students?

Always stay positive. You can get to the end, but the end is not always where you expected it to be.

What are your post-graduate school plans?

I will be a postdoc in Dr. Raymond DuBois’s lab at Arizona State University studying the colon cancer tumor microenvironment and inflammation.

What will you miss most about Madison?

Lots, but definitely the Terrace and the lakes.

Any other thoughts?

Thanks, McArdle, for being such a great and vibrant community that has provided great camaraderie and help throughout the years. Keep up the traditions in the future!

Chris Zahm, PhD

Undergraduate institution: University of Wisconsin-Madison Chris Zahm
Undergraduate major: Biochemistry

What was the most important/meaningful lesson you learned in graduate school?

You can work well and be productive with anyone, even people with views that are vastly different from your own.

If you had to sum up your graduate school experience in 3 words, what would they be?

Exciting, frustrating, rewarding.

If you could change one thing about the graduate school process, what would it be?

I would like to see more help on the tail end. I feel like there is a lot of assistance available to us in the beginning with finding labs to work in and all that, but as we look for postdocs or other positions for after graduation I find very little available to me. And what I have found hasn’t been that helpful.

What advice do you have for younger graduate students?

Take some time, before choosing a lab, to explore the research that is out there and find a topic that you are passionate about (there are many sub-fields in cancer research). Do you like using biochemistry, viruses, the immune system etc. This might be hard with little to no experience reading current literature but try to get into a lab where the science is what you want to do long term, and not just something that is shiny and new. This isn’t always possible and it’s quite easy to change course after grad school, but you will be that much more ahead when you graduate if you can continue in the field that you started. But enjoy the people in the lab you join as well.

What are your post-graduate school plans?

An academic postdoc in cancer immunotherapy

What will you miss most about Madison?

I’m staying in Madison. But if I were leaving it would be the atmosphere of the university, it’s such a nice campus and city. It inspires free thinking and expression.

Any other thoughts?

A note to incoming students - Good luck and work hard.

And with that, we continue this new year of exciting research. On , Wisconsin!

~Saja Fakhraldeen and Emily Chin