Inducing PhD Students

What a feat of architecture and design: the new Francis Crick Institute on Brill Place right next to (West of) St. Pancras Station in London. Apparently the ground floor was built first and then extended up and down simultaneously; I didn’t know that was possible. If you decide to watch the video, I recommend turning off the sound and ignoring the spectres and shadows of people.

Now, sadly, I don’t have a picture of us new PhD students posing outside or inside the building because it isn’t finished yet. As far as I am aware, there have been issues with the air conditioning and parts of the basement vibrate too much for sensitive instruments, such as microscopes, to be set up. The latter is perhaps not surprising considering that the Crick is wedged right between St. Pancras and Euston stations…

Last week we were induced/introduced/inducted to the life of being PhD students. The CEO of the Crick, Paul Nurse, who happens to have won a Nobel Prize, talked to us about how we shouldn’t work too much, try to step out of our projects from time to time to gain an overview, and remember that it is a privilege and not an entitlement to be doing a PhD at the Crick. He also said that leaving academia after this four-year PhD should not be regarded as a failure and that we would receive support in doing other things. I’m a bit sceptical because he also heavily implied that we were not to disappoint the institute, but we’ll see.

As part of the degree we will also have to complete ten days of training per year, which should cover all our bases (according to the Researcher Development Framework; gone are the days of the solitary, uncommunicative, mad scientist):

RDF

In between the serious talks there were plenty of opportunities to get to know – or schmooze with, as one of the students put it – the other students over coffee/tea/beer/wine/pizza/sandwiches. During the first icebreaker session we introduced ourselves and had to provide a memorable fact: they ranged from having started a cupcake business, to being fond of planes, teaching children the piano, appearing in a television series as a child and even being Austrian (!).

We also had a lecture on scientific integrity and ethics (in research). The take-home message was, as always, to be honest. We were shown how not to manipulate or massage data. Luckily, we will be given training in Photoshop and Illustrator so that we can handle our images correctly.

Two half-days were spent listening to the leaders of the so-called Science & Technology Platforms (STPs). These are specialised labs that usually do not have their own projects, but rather lend their equipment and expertise to the other research groups in the institute to enable them to perform experiments they would not be able to do on their own. The STPs include, among others, advanced microscopy facilities (both light and electron microscopy), flow cytometry (to analyse cells at the single-cell level and even sort them), bioinformatics and statistics, DNA/RNA sequencing and peptide chemistry/synthesis. However, the one I was most surprised by was the “scientific instrument prototyping” group – they basically create new scientific machines that no company has made before. They probably conform to the crazy inventor stereotype the most. Overall, the services offered by the STPs seem absolutely incredible and hopefully many of us will actually get to work with them.

After a week of what I thought would be a relaxed introduction to the next four years I am asking myself the question how I used to be able to sit through and concentrate during lectures?! It’s really not that long ago. And also, how have I never really reflected upon the fact that most speakers/lecturers are white middle-aged men? With the exception of the administration team, the communications/engagement team, the scientists in charge of the animal facilities and the professor who gave the talk on ethics, all of the speakers were men. Bear in mind that in our year women make up almost 70% of all students.

The last activity was organised by current PhD students and called “What Mad Pursuits“, after a book by Francis Crick. A few students from each year outlined their take on scientific discovery, told us a bit about their research, gave us refreshing examples of how and how often they’ve made mistakes (e.g. putting the microscope slide the wrong way up for two weeks before figuring out why there was no image; setting gloves on fire etc.) and gave us some advice. One student recommended reading this paper (Schwartz, 2008) – The importance of stupidity in scientific research:

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. […] The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

References:

Medawar PB (1979) Advice to a Young Scientist. Basic Books, New York.

Schwartz MA (2008) The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science 121: 1771

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3 thoughts on “Inducing PhD Students

  1. Best of luck Victoria! It sounds like they are trying to induce you as fully as possible!

    I’m looking forward to exchanging tails of being productively stupid (and an innumerate amount of mistakes) in the not so distant future!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So Victoria,
    You’ve discovered why the Athena Swan agenda is becoming so important (being lectured by ranks of white middle aged men with barely a woman in sight….). I’d appreciate it if you touched base with me by return of e-mail about how *you* would tackle this issue.

    Best of luck in the PhD – you’ll have a corker of a time, I can see. Drop by and say hi next time you’re back in Cambridge.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment, Martin – see my e-mail for a slightly more detailed reply. But in case anyone else would like to chip in, here are a couple of ideas:
      a) I don’t think the supply of female scientists, at least in biology, is lacking.
      b) So put a quota system into place for post-doc and tenure track positions, so that the hiring reflects the applications (e.g. a department hires 20 post-docs in a year and 60% of applicants are women then there should be 12 female post-docs and vice versa).
      c) Make men take paternity leave so that it ceases being a consideration when hiring new people.
      d) Encourage both junior and senior female lab members to represent their lab more often at conferences or by giving lectures. This means earning experience and CV points.

      Thoughts?

      Like

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