Are you my advisor?

Ok, great news!  You’ve figured out you want to go to graduate school (thanks to this post here) and you have decided on your degree (MS vs PhD).

Now the question is: who will you work with? Graduate school is different from undergraduate in that where you go isn’t nearly as important as who you work with.

A good advisor will increase your number of publications, assist you in avoiding going too far into debt, and generally make your life better. So before you sign up for this person to be a critical, and intrusive part of your life for the next 4-10 years  (there are many people who spend a really long time in graduate school), here are some things to consider.

  1. Do you want a big lab or a small lab? A big lab means your advisor will be splitting his/her time between you and the 10+ other graduate students and postdocs in the lab. This can mean that you’ll have a good community of peers (and suffering together makes your bonds closer, remember), and you might get more help overall. Conversely, a small lab means your advisor spends more time with you. If you want a lot of attention and time from your advisor, fewer other people in the lab might be ideal.  But if you’ve got a problem with authority, or are nervous in front of your advisor,  this might result in problems. There is no right answer to this question, it really is personal preference. But it’s something you need to think through before you seek out an advisor.
  2. What is the funding situation? This is one of those things you need to ask up front, and means more than YOUR funding situation. If you are not independently wealthy, and are seeking financial assistance to complete graduation school, you need to gather critical information.  Are you going to have to teach every semester? If you love teaching and want to inspire young minds, this might be good, but keep in mind, every hour prepping for class, teaching class, and having student office hours is time not doing your primary research. So teaching at lot will likely affect how long it will take you to get your PhD. Are you going to get paid during the summer? Are there opportunities for you to get funded (grants in progress), or does your advisor already have money (multi-year research grant)? Not only are these important for your PhD (having to take a second job really cuts into your PhD time) but also for your future (being in debt forever really sucks).
  3. Are the current and former students of the advisor happy/satisfied/graduated? This one is key. If you want to know what an advisor is like, ask his students. Don’t limit yourself to just the students currently in the lab (especially if they are new), but ask the older students. And the recently graduated. Honestly, towards the end of my PhD, my friend Bobbi and I stopped being invited to the recruitment events… because the department wasn’t wild about the new students seeing how much we were suffering. But these are the people you want to talk to. They will give you the honest opinion on the things the advisor is bad at. And here’s an important point: EVERY ADVISOR IS BAD AT SOMETHING. You need to figure out if their “bad something” is a thing you don’t care about, or things that you actually like/require in an advisor.

Pick someone who is right for you. There are a lot of advisor-advisee interactions that make a  graduate student successful.  An advisor that someone else had difficulty with may be ideal for you, your personality, your interests, and your work ethic.  That’s why the big lab vs. small lab, and the qualities of the advisor are so important. Picking a person who is a really good scientist, but not a good fit for you is going to end up difficult for everyone involved.




A Wolf Would Never Fucking Do This

I don’t know how to respond to the shooting in Las Vegas, and I especially don’t know how to do it publicly. But over at Medium, a wonderful guest post by a North American Grey Wolf really brought it home for me (or added some humor in a dour and humorless time).

Read it here, or read the excerpt below:

I am a North American Gray Wolf and I’m mad as hell. Yes, I am a bit of a loner but let me be clear, I would never do something like this. You humans never care about me unless it’s to describe a psychopath mass murderer. Just because I’ve chosen not to reproduce or run with a pack doesn’t mean you can use my name to describe white mass shooters. Stop appropriating wolf culture and come up with your own term for it. I have a suggestion: Terrorist.

Do you even know what actual lone wolves like to do? We like running, howling, eating small mammals, smelling, and more running. You know what we don’t like to do? Shoot up concerts with weapons your founding fathers never could have imagined.

In conclusion, a murderer with a lawfully purchased personal arsenal is nothing like a lone wolf. A lone wolf is a majestic grey animal who just wants to do his own thing and maybe get married when he’s ready, ok?

Please stop using my name for terrorism. I don’t even have thumbs.

Scientist play “color the butterfly”

I’m not talking about coloring books, or the new adult coloring fad, but rather new possibility in the using the CRISPR-cas gene editing.

The patterning and colors on butterflies’ wings are governed by suites of genes. Crispr-Cas now makes it much easier to figure out what a gene does by deleting it and seeing what happens.

Two teams of biologists report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have used the technique to explore the roles of two master genes that control the appearance of a butterfly’s wings.

Want to know? Read about it here.


The ‘Mother’s Curse’ in Canada

The idea for the mother’s curse goes like this. Most human genes are on chromosomes, but a tiny number are in mitochondria, little power factories in human cells that for reasons of evolutionary history have their own loops of DNA. Sperm do not pass on any mitochondria, but eggs do. Therefore, all sons and daughters inherit their mitochondrial DNA from their mother (great mother’s day present idea: sequence yourmitochondria, make into cool figure, give it to your mom thanking her for the DNA). If a harmful mutation in mitochondrial DNA ends up in a woman, she will be less evolutionarily “fit” and thus less able to pass it along. But if the mutation ends up in a man, nothing happens. He never passes along mitochondrial DNA anyway.

However, this hasn’t been tested all that often in humans. Until a perfect system arose. You see,  the first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America. And so they did.

One of these is Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which causes vision loss, usually in young men. Recently, geneticists using French Canadian genealogy have reexamined the effects of Leber’s and found a striking pattern of inheritance: It seems to show a long-theorized but never-seen-in-humans pattern called the “mother’s curse.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.


Master of Something

Since last week’s post, you’ve decided to go to graduate school. Congrats!

The big question now is which degree are you going to pursue? I don’t mean the subject area you going to study (please see last week’s post to remind yourself that you should have a passion for what you’re studying before your start), but whether you’re going to get an MS or go straight for the PhD*.

There are pros and cons of each approach. Spoiler alert:  I got an MS before I started my PhD, but a lot of my friends did not. So hopefully I’ve got enough perspective on both sides. No guarantees.

The MS isn’t “easier” than the PhD in terms of work, because you have so much less time in a MS program to accomplish an awful lot. I found that my MS was WAY harder in terms of hours working every day than my PhD. There are a lot of ways to view the “MS” vs. “PhD” dichotomy. So I’m going to frame this post as a flow chart.

An MS could be a good option if one of the following applies to you:

The MS is if you are kind of interested in a subject, but aren’t sure you want to commit to graduate school forever. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon. You’ve decided to go to graduate school, but aren’t sure you’ve got it in you to get a PhD. No worries! There’s a degree for that.

The MS is if you want to gain expertise, but you don’t want to go into academia, for which you need a PhD. Let’s say you need to develop  your expertise in an area, either in base knowledge about a particular subject, e.g., machine learning or in research techniques, e.g., statistical analysis. You start learning about it on your own and decide you want to learn more.  An MS is a great way to gain that knowledge in a formal setting (and make clear on a future resume that you’ve developed that expertise, preferably with honors). If that’s what you want/need, then an MS is great.  So stop to think, “Do I really need a PhD in this subject?”  Generally, unless you’re going into academia, the likely answer is “no.”   That makes an MS a great option.

The MS is if you are sure about graduate school, but unsure about what you want to study and need more time to figure it out. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon (yes, deja vu all over again), but you’re not sure what aspect of those subjects you want to study. Are you interested in field work? Are you interested in experimental work? Do you hate statistics and get the urge to throw your computer out of the window when R boots up? If you don’t know how you might respond to these situations, and you’re worried about it, take some more time to figure it out. I’ve found most of the people I know who have a MS come into their PhD more focused and with a better set of skills. They’ve already done the graduate school transition, and know what to expect.  They’ve crystalized what they want to study, so they are ready to go out of the gate.

The MS is if you want to get your PhD, but your undergraduate GPA is really low. Did you spend too much time finding yourself in college, plunging energetically into the social scene, prioritizing partying? Did you discover your love of research only after this extended adolescence had taken its toll on your GPA? Getting an MS can help. In general, it can be easier to get into an MS program for biology than a PhD program. There is less risk to the professor, because MS students don’t stick around as long (2-3 years instead of 5-10 (yes, I know someone who did a 10 year PhD)).  Moreover, if you have an MS in hand, some schools are more likely to overlook your undergraduate deficiencies. You’ve demonstrated that you can do the graduate school thing, and so people are more willing to see that you’ve left your misspent youth behind you.

What if you’ve enrolled in a PhD program, and you find that things aren’t quite right?

The MS may be a good solution if you start your PhD and then decided after two years that graduate school is not for you. There is no shame in realizing this. Seriously, in the previous post, I mentioned that graduate school isn’t for everyone.  You may not discover that before you start but when the romance has faded and you take a hard look, you need an exit strategy.  It may that you decide that you really don’t want to be an academic (see above), and so the PhD stops being the entry ticket to that life career.  You may just decide that you’d rather stop going into debt and start making money, but you want something to show for your time in graduate school.  Then getting an MS might be an option.  (It actually may be a good idea to discreetly explore how viable this is before entering a particular PhD program.  Life happens.)

The MS is if you start your PhD, but after a few years you realize you and your advisor really aren’t compatible. This is a big one, that I don’t think people use enough (entirely anecdotal evidence). We’ll talk next week about picking a PhD advisor, and how important it is that you have someone with whom you are compatible. If you get a few years in, and realize that you and your advisor just aren’t working out, this doesn’t have to be the end of your career. Leaving might be a good choice, and if you leave with an MS, it could open doors to other, better, situations. Importantly, the professor benefits from this situation as well. It’s good for them to get their students to finish (this is a statistic many departments/universities track on their professors), and if you’re not going to work well with them long term, then they lose nothing by you finishing earlier. If you’re miserable with your boss, but you still want to keep pursuing academia, explore this option as a solution.

*This post is American system specific. In the European, Australian, and New Zealand systems, one is REQUIRED to have a MS before pursuing a PhD. I’ll likely talk about the pros and cons of these systems in a later post.


From Octopolis to Octlantis: where to move if you’re a cosmopolitan octopus

It’s no secret that I love octopuses, and other cephalopods. I have also not made it a secret that I think they are going to take over the world (I’m only half kidding here)(seriously, they may be our overlords some day… soon). Which is why the discovery of not one but two octopus cities is both exciting and frightening. The two locations have been given names (and Buzzfeed, if you want me to write a listicle about the 10 greatest things about living in an octopus city I will) and are being studied for their anomalous appearance/existence.

“Like any urban environment, Otocopolis and Octlantis can be tough places to live. Citizens must be scrappy. The company and food are abundant but all the activity in the cities also attracts predators, including sharks.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.



A man accidentally started a social media war between two of London’s biggest museums

With this seemingly non-confrontational tweet, a London man started a battle between museum greats:

Do you remember that argument when you were little “my dad can beat up your dad”? It’s like that only with awesome specimens, and cool science. Hats off to the curators… this was well done.

See below for the beginning of the feud, or read it all here.