Thursday, October 16, 2014

An academic schedule from the lab bench

Today in our series about academic schedules I have the pleasure to invite David A. Russler-Germain, who shows what his days look like. David is an MD/PhD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. He is beginning his fourth year in his thesis lab, where he studies the role of DNA methylation in the pathogenesis and treatment of acute myeloid leukemia under the mentorship of Dr. Timothy Ley.

How does an average day start for me? Fortunately, my wife (also an MD/PhD candidate) and I only live two blocks off campus, so the alarm is set for 7:45 AM — this leaves us enough time to get ready, down some coffee, and be in lab by 9:00 AM. If I’ve been relatively organized over the past few days, I can usually dive right into my first set of tasks once I arrive at lab after I set up my computer and grab more coffee.

Often I am working on three projects at once in the lab. My primary focus is always explicitly part of the objectives outlined in my thesis proposal, which my mentor and I both prioritize unless I’m close to a major advance on another project, or working on something else particularly time-sensitive. Second, I maintain a self-initiated side-project that I strive to keep conceptually (but not necessarily directly) related to my thesis aims. Here I have more leeway to try out new things — provided I keep my expenses in line and stay productive. Lastly, I also have a collaboration with a fellow in the lab — I provide various complementary technical skills and an eager ear for daily brainstorming, while doing my best to learn from my more senior colleague, both regarding science as well as career planning.

For all of these projects, there is a wide range of tasks needing to be done each day, including: running western blots and protein biochemistry assays, DNA cloning, maintaining and manipulating in vitro cell cultures, keeping an eye on and analyzing a retroviral mouse model of leukemia, and computational analyses of genomics data. After a few years in lab, I’ve gotten better at multitasking. A typical morning this week involved selecting bacterial colonies from eight ligation reactions, starting two western blots using samples prepared earlier in the week, splitting two cell lines, and starting a flow cytometry stain on samples isolated from mice the previous day. I can almost always find at least 20 minutes between 11 AM and 2 PM to have lunch (I know some PhD students whose experiments truly don’t allow for even 15 minutes of downtime many days).

I have to admit there are almost always two or three times per morning that I check my email and Twitter for 3-5 minutes. I’ll usually open ~5 links from my Twitter feed to read later (almost always science related), and I’ll mark the few emails I need to reply to that day so I remember to get to them. I can usually find 20-30 minutes after coming back from lunch to read a paper, news article, or blog post I had seen on Twitter, as well as get most of the way caught up on my emails.

One lesson I learned early in my PhD training from the most senior graduate student at the time was to always assume your afternoon will be disrupted — if you don’t plan for this, your afternoon will assuredly get disrupted and something will have to be sacrificed. Lab meeting, journal club, seminars, and collaborator meetings all tend to get scheduled between 1 and 4 PM, so it can be tough to find several consecutive hours in the afternoon to get big chunks of lab work done without interruptions. If I make a jam-packed to-do list for both the morning and the afternoon, anything I fail to finish in the first half of the day ends up impinging on the time and focus I have reserved for my afternoon tasks. I’d rather have an extra 15-30 minutes in the afternoon to read a paper or plan for the next day than be scrambling to finish my work and be more prone to making mistakes. That being said, this is a hard plan to adhere to, though I’ve found it a helpful goal to keep.

I’m very fortunate that my mentor takes a keen interest in everyone’s work in lab, which means I have the luxury of sitting down to talk with him for at least 10-20 minutes essentially every day. My bench is on the wall outside of his office, so I also have an easy time popping in and asking him brief questions or showing him data the moment I collect them.

By 6 PM, my wife and I start texting each other to get an estimate of when we’ll be done in lab — credit goes to her for being the far more accurate estimator of timing in lab. I try to put in a good effort to organize my lab materials and notes before heading home each evening. It is easy to convince yourself that “I’ll remember tomorrow what these tubes labelled #1, #2, and #3 are!” Wrong. For every nine times you do remember, the tenth time you won’t and it’ll set you back a week or more in lab, not to mention be a huge waste of money for reagents. It’s also not very much fun to try to start experiments in the morning on a dirty bench (likely covered in precipitated salts from drops of buffers spilled everywhere), so a few minutes of relabelling and boxing up my tubes, as well as a quick spray of 70% ethanol and paper towel wipe go a long way in ensuring good and enjoyable science.

Finally, about two or three nights per week, I return after dinner to lab to work from 8 or 9 PM until 11 PM or midnight. I usually find that I have enough things going on that four or five tasks of 10-20 minutes each can really get me an entire day ahead in lab. Usually, this means putting a primary antibody on western blots and letting them incubate at 4°C overnight, setting up a PCR, etc… If we don’t have social plans, the weeknights I’m not back in lab after dinner are often prime paper-reading times for my wife and me.

All in all, while the tasks I do each day can vary widely depending on the project I’m working on, my days in lab are pretty similar in terms of their structure: experiments take up 75% of my time, with formal meetings, conversations with my boss or other lab members, and reading papers filling the remaining 25% in various ratios each day. Coming back to lab after dinner (as well as almost always for 2-6 hours each Saturday and Sunday) is something that I enjoy and am lucky to be able to do. There truly has not been a single day of graduate school when I didn’t wake up looking forward to the work I had going on that day. While sometimes I wish I could’ve slept in later and don’t want to get out of bed yet, I still look forward to my research. When I have work to do, I want to do it. I also enjoy my time off, watching football, going cycling or golfing, cooking something fun, etc… with my wife and our friends. I encourage future PhD students reading this to choose their careers path with this in mind. Don’t forget to have a life outside of lab, but also don’t forget that graduate school is a long road with primarily intellectual – not material – rewards, and a PhD is not simply a training period for your “future career”. It is your “career”.

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