In our program, May 1st is another type of commitment day. We have to decide on our lab home! The first three quarters of our program is reserved for rotations, from which we will pick our permanent labs by today. Luckily for us, we have both committed to labs for our doctoral research. We wanted to write a little about our experiences.
We have lab homes now!
Disclaimer: if there is anything I have learned after my first year, it is that some things in life truly come down to chance. This is SUCH a scary thought, but it is also comforting to realize there is always the chance that doors you never thought existed can open for you. Here I am on the other side of the door, wondering how it is I even got here.
After two quarters of rotating in labs that didn’t have funding for me (check out our previous post for tips on choosing rotations based on what I’ve learned through this stressful experience), I definitely had a lot at stake for my third rotation. I knew that this would be my last chance at a rotation, and that no matter what happened, I would have no other options than to join this lab. While I made friends and got exposed to new research areas, my last two rotations made me a bit weary. There was drama. There was disappointment. I was heartbroken when I found out that the first lab I rotated in didn’t have funding for me at the beginning of this year. It was then when I met my PI; I was heartbroken, panicked, and emailed her even though she told me a couple months ago that she didn’t have room for a rotation student. Dr. Nance’s lab had been my top choice going into UW, so I thought “why not” and emailed her again.
And to my disbelief, she replied with “There are a few project areas in the group that are in need of more personnel. The spring quarter timing would be really good as well!” As I said, sometimes things in life are all about timing.
As I'm not able to actually start experimental work, this is a lab Zoom meeting photo!
I met up with her the following week, and within the first hour of talking to her I already knew that I wanted to join her lab permanently. Dr. Nance and I talked about the future of biomaterials for drug delivery to the blood brain barrier and interdisciplinary research. She and I bonded over our non-conventional paths of meandering our way through the research that interested us, not restricting ourselves to the field that is listed on our diplomas. She is a young professor (who just submitted her tenure application today!), and more importantly a strong proponent of supporting minorities in STEM (she founded WChE: Women in Chemical Engineering, at UW--yay to professors who reach out to diversify STEM). What really stuck out to me was that she focused a lot of our discussion on mentorship and communication. From the start she made sure that I felt prioritized, even going out of her way to personally contact my program director to ensure him of her ability to fund me (after hearing about my past two rotation experiences…). My previous PIs have been really hands-off, and I barely had any communication with them other than weekly lab meetings, so Dr. Nance’s approach to close mentorship drew me in.
Although the pandemic has made this quarter an interesting rotation, I have enjoyed working with everyone I’ve met so far! We have weekly grad lunches to check up on everyone, and biweekly lab game nights. I’m also super excited about our research! The Nance lab is a highly interdisciplinary lab, integrating tissue models with imaging, molecular biology, and data science tools to probe changes in the brain that might influence how a therapeutic behaves. Dr. Nance likes to describe her work as disease-directed engineering: using results from experiments and models to guide therapeutic design. Neurological diseases account for about 11% of the global burden of disease and drugs that are used to treat injured/diseased brains take longer to be developed for human use compared to any other type of disease. My research will utilize nanotechnology as a visualization tool and help develop potential therapeutics to enable imaging and treatment where current technology is limited. Her research melds together two of my interests--nanotechnology and neuroscience, and I feel so so so lucky that the right door opened for me.
I met my PI by chance; when I visited UW for the first time, most of the faculty I planned on meeting with were out of town for the weekend. My interests were centered around infectious disease, so my pool of potential rotations was small to begin with, which left me with a few open slots during my visit. The Molecular Engineering advisor arranged for me to meet with Dr. Stayton because, as the institute director, he would be able to answer all of my questions about the program. We sat down for coffee and chatted about my research goals.
I described how my interest in infectious disease research was inspired by my mother being immunocompromised, and how the world of microbiology is utterly fascinating and terrifying. In turn, he described his work in drug delivery, and how he had multiple ongoing projects involving infectious disease treatment that weren’t yet discussed on the faculty page. The work would be chemistry-heavy, which immediately piqued my interest. Although I was a molecular and cellular biology major, organic chemistry was easily one of my favorite classes. Dr. Stayton's platform allows for improved drug delivery by targeting specific tissue. I was inspired, not only by the amazing work going on in this lab, but also by the humanity of its PI. I could tell Dr. Stayton was sincere when he said that his goal was to make a real difference in the world, especially places with fewer resources which are ravaged by treatable infectious disease. That was in October of 2018 and his lab was at the top of my list for rotations. During visitor’s weekend the following spring, I met with Dr. Stayton again. During this meeting, I asked more about his mentorship style and he divulged that he was pretty hands-off. We agreed on a rotation for the fall and that was that.
This lab is fantastic! The people are all brilliant and kind, and I enjoy learning from my labmates. I knew I wanted a lab where I felt welcome. I immediately got on with a fellow grad student in the lab, and we started a journal club so we could learn more with each other.
Perhaps most important of all, I am passionate about the work. I feel excited to read about this research, and I love to talk about it. I believe it will be highly applicable to a number of research topics, and especially in infectious disease research. This subject is something I can see myself obsessing over for the next 5 years of my life, and beyond.
One thing I was not used to was a hands-off mentor. My two previous lab experiences involved small labs where I was working at the bench right alongside my PIs. I spoke with them daily, to the point where I would describe them as friends now that I’ve left their labs. Suddenly, I was speaking with my PI about once a week, if that. I was left to my own devices, and I had to decide if this was what I wanted for the rest of my PhD. It dawned on me, after having such hands-on mentors as an undergrad, that this is exactly what I need to become the independent investigator I want to be. After the first quarter, I didn’t need convincing. I knew I wanted to join the lab, and didn’t see a reason to do another rotation when I could, instead, get to work. So, I have stayed in this lab and submitted my commitment form!