Recently, I was invited to attend a Masterclass held by the Royal Society in Dublin. There would be 9 other students attending, and the session would be in the form of an open discussion with the President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate, Professor Venkatraman “Venki” Ramakrishnan.
So for this post I’ll share with you some of the insights I gained from talking to the very humble, very approachable professor.
The Royal Society set up a very luxurious looking room for our Masterclass, very accommodating to everyone who needed coffee after travelling over!
Venki has had quite an unconventional career path. Following a PhD in Physics, he won the Nobel prize in Chemistry for an important discovery in the field of Biology.
So how did this come about? Well, after Venki completed his PhD in Theoretical Physics, he started to suspect his research was heading towards a dead end. He suspected that there would be more potential for top tier research in a field like Biology. So he went back to the beginning, taking an undergraduate degree in Biology. After his post-doctoral fellowship, he was unable to find a faculty position, despite applying to 50 universities. Venki then worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory for 12 years until being appointed Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Utah.
In 2009, he shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry with Thomas A Steitz and Ada Yonath “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”.
Without question, an interesting career path, with several valuable lessons. Humility for one, as Venki noted that both his family and colleagues questioned his decision to go from PhD in Physics to an undergraduate degree in Biology. Perseverance as well, after being unsuccessful in acquiring a faculty position after 50 applications.
The most important qualities in PhD or Post-doc Students
Many believe that academic achievement is the best quality an early career researcher can have. However, there are other qualities that are arguably far more essential.
Genuine interest in a particular project is up there at the top. To achieve this in his own lab, Venki will often invite potential candidates to tour his lab, becoming familiar with the various projects and in particular, the questions that have yet to be answered within the field. Following this, the student will often ask him what he would like them to do their research on. To which he will reply,
“Well, what would you like to do your research on?”
If the student has a good understanding of what the big questions are, they will be able to select the one which interests them most. This is what keeps a student motivated in the long term.
A skill all students should work on is asking questions to others. Time and time again I see that students are too scared to ask questions at the end of seminars (I admit I am guilty of this now and again). But it is vital that students are curious, and that they feed that curiosity by being rigorous with their questioning.
If you think about it, your PhD is built around one particular question you want to answer. Therefore, it is crucial to question your own experiments frequently. For instance, did that particular experiment bring you closer to answering the big question? If not, then why did you do it? As a rule of thumb, if you can’t explain to a layman why you did a particular experiment, then you may be in trouble.
Breadth of Knowledge
A broad knowledge of the field can be important. If you’d like to test yourself, take a paper that is crucial to your project. Once you have located the journal it was published in, read the papers on either side of it, see if you can understand them. This can be challenging but it should illustrate how much you know about your field in general. If you’d like to develop this further, attend journal clubs or start a blog about areas of interest in your field.
Mentoring and Teaching
The traditional idea or progression in academia is PhD student -> Post-doc -> P.I. However these jumps can be difficult considering the job responsibilities change dramatically, not to mention how competitive it will be (see below).
When you’re a post-doc, you spend most of your time in the lab, yet you’ll have more supervision responsibilities than a PhD student. Conversely, a supervisor is much less active in the lab and acts as a mentor for all members of the lab group. If you’re a PhD student or Post-doc with aspirations of being in charge of your own lab group someday, improve your mentoring skills by teaching the junior members of your lab. If you have the time, take on your own undergraduate or summer student. These are great opportunities that will be available in most labs.
The Importance of Networking
Networking is essential as a means to get yourself invited to meetings as well as forming collaborations. At conferences, 99% of the networking begins after the last talk of the day. So stop hiding in your hotel room (something Venki admits he used to do). Get out there and meet other scientists. If there is a conference dinner, don’t be afraid to sit next to a professor! The more you engage, the more you’ll become a part of “the network”. When you’re a part of “the network”, you may notice an increase in the invitations to other labs / universities. You may also gain valuable insights on your own research from a casual conversation.
The importance of being “Woke”, A.K.A. being able to spot underlying problems in your research environment. If these problems are the kind that you have no control over, and will hold your career back in the long run, you may need to move. The key is not to be afraid of simply packing up your things and walking out the door. Venki warned us to avoid the “slow death”, which would be ignoring the problem, and continuing to struggle with your research for years. Perhaps one day you’ll hit a brick wall, you’ll realise you should have moved years ago, but it may be too late. Better to move when you see the problem coming.
Work – Life Balance
I asked Venki how to get out of my own head during my leisure time. When I’m not in work, I constantly think about my project. Interestingly, the rest of the room nodded in agreement with this, perhaps this simply comes with the job. The worst feeling is walking into work on Monday morning, wondering where your weekend went. The general advice from the room was to avoid such depressing thoughts by developing your life outside of work. On Friday, plan your weekends out carefully, fill the time with exercise and hobbies you enjoy. In fact, go so far as to plan your work around your exercise and hobbies.
The Habits of Top Labs
Having visited and worked in various Universities and Labs across the world, Venki was able to provide some key insights into what makes a good lab:
○ Small groups (~8 people), each person focusing on a particular aspect of one larger project.
○ Eat meals together during the week. During these meals, ensure there is no seating arrangement based on hierarchy. Allowing undergrads to mix with professors etc allows for constant sharing of ideas as well as troubleshooting.
○ Collaboration within the lab should be encouraged.
○ Competition within the lab should be discouraged
Venki has recently written a book called “Gene Machine”, which is due out later this year. It details the race between his group and another to solve the structure of the ribosome. The book will allow readers to see behind the curtain of scientific discovery, with emphasis on the human side, the politics, and the realities of working in science.