Thursday, April 16, 2015

CMIID member visits DC for science policy advocacy

Stephanie Bora, a 4th year IID student and CMIID member, recently attended the National Science Policy Group's (NSPG) Congressional Visit Day in Washington, DC.  This allows students to experience science advocacy in action.

Click HERE to read about her experience:

If you are interested in learning more about this, more information can be found at the Penn State Center for Science Advocacy website. :

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Projects

I don’t think my graduate school experience is unique. I entered a PhD program fresh out of undergrad, wide-eyed and excited to research anything my PI told me to. But a couple years into my program I was assigned a lot of random, unrelated things to look into, and none of them seemed to be going anywhere. I expressed this concern to my PI when I thought I should be thinking about my Comprehensive Exams, and was told we were trying “to make something stick.” Finally somewhere in my 3rd year (too late in my opinion), something did stick! Positive data! Oh happy day! Then something stuck on a different project, so cool! I went from five aimless projects, to two promising projects I could pick a thesis from. I just had to pick one, hooray science!
            But somehow a year later, when I should be focusing on developing a strong thesis, I’m still splitting my time between two completely unrelated projects. The joy in having options for a thesis project faded when I realized I wouldn’t be able to work on just one thesis project. Let’s be honest: as researchers, we have our favorite projects. My thesis project is my favorite; it’s exciting, it’s new, and not least of all it’s what I’m using to get my degree and move on. So when I have to work on my other project, it’s a distraction. The result is I don’t feel like I’m making enough progress in either project; both are moving forward, but at what I think is a glacial pace.
            As graduate students, and post-docs, we’re expected to multi-task. I understand that. But when you’re juggling multiple projects that are independent of each other and both have enough going for them to be separate thesis projects, it gets to be overwhelming. But I have learned a few things on how to manage:

1)    Make the project you like best the priority. This is a lot easier to do if it’s your thesis project. Every graduate student I’ve met is a hard-worker, and sometimes that means we feel like failures when we let things go. But devoting your time and thinking abilities to one major project probably means you’ll make more progress, rather than spreading your resources and abilities too thin. I don’t advise splitting your time evenly between two unrelated things: pick one to focus on.

2)    Make your PI like your priority best. Again, this is a lot easer to do if it’s your thesis project. However you feel about your PI, they know it’s in their best interest that you make progress on your thesis. Sometimes reminding them of that helps throw their support and their resources behind your favorite project. In my case, my other project is not one we’re funded to do, while we have grants for my thesis project. A reminder that my other project is using money we aren’t secure in helped shift her focus back to my thesis project.

3)    Don’t completely neglect your other project. My PI doesn’t really remember what I’m working on; I suspect that if I never mentioned my other project she would never ask about it. It’s tempting to pretend the mice for this project don’t exist. But when I have downtime between experiments for my thesis, I still work on it, and think about how to get to the mechanism behind what we’ve observed. This way I’m still furthering the project, and will probably get a paper out of it.

4)    Be willing to teach. There may come a time when your PI or collaborator will take on a new student, and that new student will take that other project off your hands. I’m still waiting for that blessed day, but I know it won’t be a clean break: someone will have to train the hypothetical person who carries on my other project. My PI and our collaborator on the other project both know I’m frustrated with how I have to split my time, but by making it known that I’m happy to help and teach a new person, I think our collaborator is reassured that the project won’t completely fall off the grid if I stop working on it. In being willing to teach, I’m also preserving a decent relationship with our collaborator, and again keeping opportunities for authorship and future collaboration open. And that’s never a bad thing.

This post was written by Stephanie Bora, a 4th year IID PhD student.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Four Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Writing A Manuscript

We all await for those sweet words to come our way, “I think we’re ready to start writing up your data in to a manuscript.”  Finally, you get a chance to start writing up your projects as a first author and can tell the world (or rather the small group of people that study the same thing you do) about all the cool science you’ve been doing.  I was excited when I started to write up my data.  Finally I felt like I was making some progress.  However as I started the manuscript writing process, I realized I was in for an experience.  One that I wish somebody had told me about.  So for right now, I will share some of the major things I’ve learn as I am currently writing my first manuscript as a first author.  Once my manuscript has been sent back (most likely), revised and is published (fingers crossed), I’ll share what else I learned along the way. 

Four things I wish I had known before starting to write a manuscript
1) Ultimately, it your PI’s call as to what goes into your paper.
Even though you did the hands on work and have been actively writing and editing the paper, your PI has the final say.  Their grants funded your work and paid for your salary.  Also, it is their name and reputation on the line when they publish your work.  This may vary from PI to PI as to how much input you get to have on the content of your paper.  I know that I started out with a certain idea of how my work should be written and presented however it was not the best way.  And it can be challenging getting used to having your idea for your work being changed into somebody else’s idea for your work.  I’ve been told that this is part of the process that everybody goes through.  I felt like I was doing something wrong every time the draft came back and was substantially from what I had sent two days before.  Apparently, this is normal.  Crappy, but normal. 

2) Communication between you and your co-authors is really important.
The clearer you and your PI are about the direction of your paper the better.  You both waste less time trying to get on the same page about how to write up your work and which experiments to you need to prioritize to fill in the hole in your story.  I recommend having a meeting with your PI before you start writing so you can start on the same page and then have regular meetings to keep you on schedule with your writing and also to keep communication flowing.

3) It is another full time job – so now you have two: research and writing.  And they are supposed to be done at the same time.
Finding a balance between writing and doing bench work is challenging not to mention balancing your interests outside of lab.  Good luck.  I feel like all grad school is a balancing act.

4) It will take way longer than you think to write the paper.
Even the best planned timeline for getting a draft to co-authors and getting a draft submitted will go awry.  Get used to it.  It gets done when it get done.  Learn from all the delays that come your way.

This was written Kaitlin McDaniel, a 5th year Pathobiology student.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Good Fall Eats on a Graduate Student Budget

Hello CMIID students!

Regardless of our status, first year graduate student, fifth year graduate student, or post doc, we typically live paycheck to paycheck (maybe tossing some money into savings). I know for myself that after rent, utilities, and a car payment, my weekly grocery budget is fairly set. To stretch that budget, I try to shop in season. By that I mean purchasing vegetables and fruits that are currently being harvested and are thus fresh and inexpensive.

We are currently smack dab in the middle of the fall season and there are a plethora of veggies and fruits in season. These include:

Fruits                           Vegetables
Apples                         Arugula
Clementines                 Root veggies (carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, turnips)
Cranberries                  Pumpkin
Dates                           Kale and spinach
Figs                              Brussel sprouts
Pears                            Squash (spaghetti, acorn, buttercup, delicata)

Local farmers markets obviously have some great deals on produce. The grocery stores are also worth a look though. Wegman’s, for example, will stock some locally grown and produced foods. Trader Joe’s is where I buy a lot of my winter squash. They sell it at a flat rate whereas most other stores sell per pound. It all just takes some willingness to shop around and become familiar with seasonal produce.

And once you’ve got the produce, it all comes down to preparing some tasty dishes; perhaps a hearty soup, roasted squash, or stuffed baked sweet potatoes. Below are a few links to some tasty looking recipes:

Happy shopping and cooking!


Lindsay Snyder is a 4th yr Immunology and Infectious Disease graduate student in Dr. Cantorna's lab.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Starting Over: 5 things you didn’t realize would slow you down in a new post doc.

You leave your PhD lab feeling confident because you just spent 4-8 years in your field, where you have read, researched, and written parts of your field.  You believe that you have a strong technical background in what you’ve done, and you may decide to change fields slightly for your post-doc. Doing this opens you up to expanding your knowledge much further than if you maintained a position in your current field, and it also opens you up to feeling stupid most of the time. (See The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research:

Don’t worry – this is normal.

Just like when you first started graduate school and knew nothing about the field, you will need time to adapt. I changed from a microbiology lab with a focus on the immune response against whooping cough (vaccinate your kids!), to an erythropoiesis lab, learning how the body deals with stresses that cause dramatic loss of red blood cells due to either trauma or leukemia. Because these fields are very different, I expected it to take some time to adapt, but I wasn’t sure how long before I started to really get going. 

Here is what I’ve learned:
1. Paperwork doesn’t normally transfer. Even though I have decided to continue my career at the same institution that I carried out my graduate work in, new paperwork is needed as an employee that was either different because of my change in status from graduate student to employee or did not transfer to my new laboratory. You will be expected to complete the same training you have already completed because you are in a different building, lab, or department. You will need to be added to new IACUCs, IRBs, and IBCs, because these are laboratory specific. This paperwork will take a while.

2. Just because you learned a technique previously doesn’t mean you know how to do it.  Every lab has their own way of doing things. Some may extract bone marrow by drilling into the bone and flushing the marrow out while others may just pulverize the whole bone and filter out the unwanted cells. Neither of these versions are incorrect, but labs have a tendency to maintain their standard operating procedures (SOPs) to make sure that data are comparable among members within the lab. It will take time to learn from the lab members to know how certain procedures and techniques are expected to be performed, which leads to our next point.

3. You will need to work on someone else’s schedule until you have learned those SOPs. When you first start a lab and are trying to learn how that lab does things, you will need to observe other labmates, and even work side by side with them until you can master their SOPs.

4. You will need to learn a new set of jargon and the literature of a new field. This one is pretty obvious. Whether you change course slightly or hop into a brand new field that you know little to nothing about, you will need to learn the update views, big names in the field, and

5. You will need to learn how your new boss operates. How often do you meet? Are you expecting to share data on a specific day at a specific time or should you report new data as it comes in? Is there a regular lab meeting, and if so, what is the format? Will you share or present data every time? Is this a general update on progress? Are important journal articles discussed? How closely related are the journal articles to people’s work? This is very much so lab specific, and every lab has a different way of doing things. The best advice suggests that you talk to labmates to discover how things run and how you should contribute.

For these reasons, it really will take you about 2 months to start being a productive member of the lab when you change field. Most PIs expect this, and although you should be working hard to get yourself deeper into the new field, give yourself a break now and then to step back and realize how much you will have learned when starting over.

This post was written by Dr. Laura Goodfield, post-doc in Dr. Paulson's lab.