Graduate students must often weigh the pros and cons of straying from an advisor’s research program
Guest contributor Carolyn Beans
Early in graduate school, I had total study system envy. In many biological fields, including my own field of evolutionary ecology, a study system is a specific species that a scientist uses to run tests. Some of these species like mice, zebrafish, and the plant Arabidopsis are model organisms, and have been well-studied for decades or more. Whether scientists choose a model organism or a relatively unknown species as a study system can have drastic consequences for their research.
From day one of graduate school, I watched many of my classmates go after fascinating ecological and evolutionary questions using their advisors’ reliable study systems. I had questions too, but my own advisor’s ribwort plantain plants couldn’t help me answer them. It took me nearly a year to find the right plants to study. It took me another six months to figure out how to grow them in a greenhouse. At one week in, I felt behind. At one year in, I felt desperate. At two years in, with my own study system up and running, I felt relief. I also felt a deep sense of accomplishment.
Graduate students often face the question of how far to stray from an advisor’s research program. For many, that question begins with whether to choose a new species to study or to stick with an advisor’s tried-and-true system. I recently spoke with a few other scientists about the many factors to consider. My conclusion: there is no one right choice.
An academic launch pad
“These days, many people would say that my style of advising is a little bit old fashioned,” says Sharon Strauss, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis. Strauss has advised over a dozen graduate students and only one chose to work on Strauss’ own study system. Instead, students find the ideal organisms for answering each of their own unique questions.
Choosing and developing new systems takes time. A new plant might not germinate in the greenhouse. A new insect may prove inappropriate for the experimental design. “It may be two years before some of my students can really test a research question,” says Strauss. “At that point they’re scrambling. They have to take orals. They’re behind on preliminary data for applying for grants. It’s tears in the office time.”
But with dedicated hard work and some well-placed advice, Strauss says that the projects always come together. And although students may lose time initially, they’re left with a better launch pad for their long-term academic careers. “My students get to cut their teeth on how to design and work on a system from scratch,” says Strauss. She believes that experience will help her students when they set up their own labs one day.
The currency of science
When Kate Barald was a graduate student in the early 1980s, every one of her 18 lab mates worked on a different study system. They were all members of developmental biologist Norman Wessells’ lab at Stanford University. Wessells felt that a lab with diverse study systems could inspire a cross-fertilization of ideas that would enhance everyone’s science.
Barald describes Wessells’ lab as eclectic and wonderfully stimulating. But today, in her own developmental biology lab at the University of Michigan, students are generally expected to pick from one of Barald’s existing systems. The reason: funding. Barald says that, in her field, funding agencies now have more limited resources and they’re hesitant to take a chance on a student who isn’t using an advisor’s established system.
Strauss also says that, at least in her field, it used to be important to make your own research path early because “single author papers were the currency for publication. If you were on too many joint-author papers, then you weren’t original enough.” But she says that culture is changing. It’s still important to produce first-author papers, but including more authors no longer lessens the value or impact of a publication.
The thrill of a classic
Rebecca Satterwhite remembers well when her Master’s advisor at the University of Houston, Timothy Cooper, gave her Petri dishes of E. coli that he had cultured from lines in Richard Lenski’s lab.
“I thought, ‘My gosh, these are famous bacterial populations. I can’t believe someone is just giving these to me,’” she says.
The bacteria were part of a long-term evolution experiment that Lenski began at Michigan State University nearly three decades ago. By tapping into this well-developed system, Satterwhite could test her hypothesis — and answer a question that she couldn’t have without those Petri dishes to speed things up.
When Satterwhite decided to take the step up into a PhD, she was originally tempted to stick with the same system, but Cooper advised against it. “He told me that everyone falls in love with their first model system,” she says. Satterwhite ultimately realized that she had questions she couldn’t answer using E. coli alone. She’s now studying how fungi drive microbial communities in Arabidopsis plants — a system she is bringing to her lab as a first-year PhD student at the University of Chicago.
Fungi are an adjustment. “It’s not like E. coli, which you can just pull out of the freezer and go,” she says. But so far her cultures have been successful and she’s excited about what this new system can teach her. “I think a PhD is a good time to branch out,” she says.
Best advice: Follow your own interests
If you can tackle a question you’re passionate about using your advisor’s system, then go for it. After all, your interest in your advisor’s work is likely what landed you in that lab in the first place. But if you find yourself gravitating toward questions that just can’t be answered with your advisor’s school of zebrafish or freezer full of E. coli, then don’t be afraid to try something new.
Carolyn Beans is a Washington, D.C.-based science writer specializing in ecology, evolution, and biomedicine. Her PhD work at the University of Virginia focused on the ecological and evolutionary effects of an invasive jewelweed plant on a closely related native species.