Columns Opinion

Are we doing enough?

Shubha Tole

This is a question to ask ourselves at many levels and about many things- indeed about anything one wants to do well, or make a difference to. At TIFR we had a series of presentations last month on Vision for the future” – which was an attempt to ask Are we doing enough” at the institutional level. In this blog I want to focus this question on the issue of training students to become independent scientists. How rigorously we ask this question of ourselves and our training programs will essentially impact the emerging generation of India’s future scientists.

Labs in India rely on students as the main workforce, most of whom seek post doctoral opportunities abroad, so only rarely is one lucky enough to get good postdocs who are truly past the training” years of a PhD program and are able to function independently. So we tend to have mostly students at different levels in the lab. But with each student comes the responsibility of training them to become independent, so that they will eventually become postdocs who are able to identify problems, set out to address them, discuss their thoughts and their data with their PI as equals, write their own papers, think about how to address reviewer’s comments, write grants…and then, if they wish, become faculty members who have a vision for a long-term research program, can attract competitive funding, can present and their ideas with the big picture in mind, are stimulating colleagues for other faculty and students to interact with, and indeed, are able to give their students enough guidance yet enough training so that they will eventually grow beyond needing guidance.

Nothing in our own training really prepares us for this- most of us learn on the job, often subconsciously modeling our mentoring in line with or in contrast to that of our own thesis advisors! It bears thinking about, even discussing in detail with one’s colleagues, as to what aspect of student training needs bolstering in one’s own institution or department, and what one can do about it. It’s easy to slide into treating students as pairs of hands” and letting their brains and minds shape up by default, after all any intelligent student will learn in the right environment. The question to ask is Are we doing enough to contribute to that environment?”

Our system at TIFR requires that 2nd yr PhD students write their thesis proposals in a grant proposal format. This itself was a new, positive step we introduced some years back, since this is usually the only grant proposal a student learns to write in our currently well-funded system. Writing a good grant proposal can be a tremendous learning experience because it forces the student to anticipate in detail how they will do their experiment, the potential pitfalls, possible alternate routes, interpretations of data they anticipate. More broadly, since students are usually more comfortable talking about techniques than questions, it requires them to see” the broad aim that underlies a group of experiments, and the overall hypothesis that motivates a group of aims. This happens only if the advisor is willing to do multiple rounds of back-and-forth with the student, taking a scattered description of experiments with some background thrown in all the way to a cogent proposal with a hypothesis, specific aims, and well designed experiments. I have found it to be well worth the effort. A wonderful example is that of a student who has been writing her proposal with me over the past month. When pushed to write what the pitfalls might be (“think about what if this or that does not work the way you think it should,” I had suggested), she came to me very perplexed after clearly having thought things through for some time. But Shubha, if the first aim doesn’t work, then I can’t even proceed to aims 2 and 3!”
What an aha!” feeling for the advisor to have the student discover this herself! so we put our heads together and reframed each of the aims so they would address questions that do not depend on the previous one working.” Am I doing enough to make sure students I come in contact with (outside my lab) also know about the elements of a good grant? Possibly- by questioning them closely in thesis committee meetings when they are preparing their grant proposal and finally when they defend it. Also, I am part of a DBT neuroscience task force in which we discuss at some length how to help PIs whose grants have been triaged to write better ones. Our comments are often detailed enough to help them, and all criticism is constructive, rather than only critical. Also, we have uploaded a sample grant on the DBT website. This is just a beginning- there’s a long way to go…we as a collective community need to do much, much more on this front.

Now to move on to analyzing thinking and presenting…an amazing example came from a summer student visiting my lab- a very bright undergraduate student. We asked her to present a few journal clubs of papers my own lab had published, so that she would be able to understand our work. Of her own accord, she began each presentation with a broad summary statement of what the paper contributed to biology as a whole. E.g. in this paper we will learn how symmetry is broken in a uniform sheet of cells, and how boundaries are defined.” It was such an amazing and insightful opening (followed by a really thorough and well presented journal club), that we have now adopted this pattern for all our journal clubs, and in fact spend several minutes at the beginning of each journal club trying to collectively come up with an opening statement that would be of interest to any biologist from any area. Am I doing enough to pass on this wonderful learning experience? Perhaps, if I can spread this to other labs, as I’m trying to do via this blog.

In other blogs, I will ask the question with respect to other aspects of making one’s contribution to the scientific community at large.