Biomed/computational researcher in a plant lab

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Biomed/computational researcher in a plant lab

Postby S.S.T. » Wed Jul 29, 2015 5:13 pm

Hi, I am a grad student currently have a bit of a tough decision in terms of what lab to go into. I come from a molecular biology/genetics background but I've taken up more and more computational work over the past few years sometimes working on completely dry lab projects. Right now, I would say I think I'm interested in biomedical type research with a mix of analytical/tool development computational and wetlab bench components. I'm more used to human focused mammalian cell/mouse style labs

There is an available spot in one group that while having an interesting computational project is in a genetics/cell lab utilizing plants. I've never been particularly interested in plant biology or working with plants. Unfortunately my options other than this lab are more uncertain. THere may be some neuro labs which really don't do computational work yet but even that isn't as clear. Do any of you have any thoughts about whether I should take this position? I'm concerned not only about my time as a grad student but my prospects should I want to pursue a future career in biomed/human focused research in industry or academia. I'm a fairly mature student so I would like to avoid lengthy postdocs if possible as I feel I've lost too many years already.

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Re: Biomed/computational researcher in a plant lab

Postby Dave Walker » Thu Jul 30, 2015 10:16 am


Are you choosing a lab after rotations, i.e. at the beginning of your graduate career? Or are you looking at a postdoc/"next step" lab? I will assume the former from your context, but correct me if I'm wrong.

I think there are two major parts to picking a graduate lab: the research, and the mentor. These in turn impact the two things you will need to success: skills used and passion for research. It sounds to me--let me know if I'm wrong--like you're trying to decide what is more important between the two.

I would say: aim to have both.

Your situation is probably more complicated than you could describe in a single post, so there will probably be no easy answers. If it helps, I can chime in with some of my experience as a recent grad:

On skills:
It's probably unreasonable to do both heavy computational tool development and "wet lab" research in the same thesis project. In my experience, they are on opposite ends of the skill spectrum...or perhaps better said they are equally large time commitments, and as such one can get a life sciences PhD doing 100% of either. Of course, you can incorporate computational analysis into almost any biological thesis project these days.

Practically, this means you can learn R and get really good at it and you can understand the intricacies of the analysis step which will shine on your post-grad resume.

On passion:
It's very challenging to switch rapidly between fields -- i.e., from an HIV grad lab to a prostate cancer postdoc. It can be done, but it puts you at a disadvantage. If you cannot find the one thing you would love to do right now, develop skills to do that later.

I heard the famous scientist Jeremy Nathans talk about his life in a lecture. He mentioned combining two skill sets into giving himself a niche that he could excel at. For him, it was eye development (grad school) + molecular genetics (postdoc). I know many who have done similarly: the genetics of ____ disease, for example.

I don't know if I would say skills trump passion; however, I think they are the foundation for your career in its younger years.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: Biomed/computational researcher in a plant lab

Postby Dave Jensen » Fri Jul 31, 2015 9:37 am

Just curious about the original poster's views on plant biology . . . It seems to me that anyone involved in this arena would have a chance to contribute to one of the biggest problems facing our over-populated planet. How will we feed all these people? In the early 1800s the population of the world was estimated to be around 1 billion. It grew to 2 billion in the 1920s and to 6 billion at the close of the last millennium. We are currently adding approximately 80 million more per year and, at this rate, the global population will increase from the current 6 billion to >10 billion people by the mid-2020s. Ooops. That's a lot of plant biotechnology required between here and there.

Dave Walker -- excellent post in reply, thank you! Lots of good, thought provoking commentary on choosing the right lab.

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Re: Biomed/computational researcher in a plant lab

Postby S.S.T. » Mon Aug 03, 2015 1:46 pm

I understand plant biology is very important. I'm just worried about the potential implications of taking this lab for my degree. My interests and experience are a mix of computational and genetics/molecular work in a biomed context. This lab while being a genetics lab and having a computational project does all its work in plants.

Im concerned not just about possible pitfalls during my time as a grad student but also afterward. If I want to work in a cancer lab in academia or industry, what will they think if the past five years I have been working with arabadopsis? My age also plays a role in my reluctance for taking long unnecessarily drawn out paths.

Unfortunately the other labs are much more uncertain in their availability otherwise this might be a moot point. There are a couple neuro labs that may possibly work out but they have some of the same issues of not being exactly 'the right fit', ie not have a computational component, structural focused etc. I understand I will probably have to compromise somewhat. I'm just wondering in what way and how far would be ideal.
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Re: Biomed/computational researcher in a plant lab

Postby S.S.T. » Mon Aug 10, 2015 5:23 pm

After asking around it might be shaping up that this is the only group that I can be funded in. The other groups at best may require a TA load throughout my time there if there is even funding available.

I guess my main question for now is how much of a handicap will it be to work in a genetics/cell lab with plants if you possibly may want to work in the biomedical field?

On one hand Since I going to be working partly in bioinformatics it may not matter but on the other I may also want/be required to have some role in the experimental side so I worry that my plant background will disquaify me for a position in say a cancer lab outright or make it so that I'm no better considered than a guy straight out of college with a BS.
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