Did you drift from one project to another during your first year in graduate school? Did your program have you do rotations? Did you continue something you began as an undergrad? Or did you simply join one lab, get on a project and never look back?
I think there are a lot of good ways to be introduced to research in graduate school, but it worries me that we lose people or have people on projects that they don’t love because we don’t take enough time at the beginning to explore. The importance of extending to unfamiliar areas fits well with what I learned about creativity and brainstorming from KnowInnovation. I suppose that with any learning, I have forgotten most of what they taught me, but one thing that really stuck is that you should separate judging from initial exploration. How can we apply this to the first year of graduate school?
At the innovative and exciting Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (referred to as IGC) they do things differently, at least in the program I taught in for a couple of days last week. It is called the Program in Integrative Biomedical Sciences, PIBS. It is much broader than that name might seem, since it has plant research, behavior, evolution, bacterial signaling and other basic research topics that might surprise you in a biomedical program. They take in one highly selected, international class of about 14 students a year.
This year they come from 9 countries. Then these students spend the first semester together in an integrated program that takes all their time with labs, discussions, presentations, and speakers from all over the world. The schedule has weeks on the history of biology, cell biology, statistics, development, evolution, ecology, immunology, major transitions, hypothesis-driven research, and more. It has nearly 50 outside speakers that spend a day or two with these bright students, presenting their own research and perspective. At the end of the 16 weeks, the students begin to choose a lab.
There are many strengths to this program. One in particular interested me. In groups of three or four the students presented research papers in a formal journal club. Normally I favor a free for all with open discussion for journal club, but I could see the strength of this approach here, for it allowed the students focused on a paper to really work hard to understand it and defend their presentation to others. Then, at the end of the week each team of students had to pretend they had joined the laboratory of the group that wrote their journal club paper, and present a new project that extended the work in some way.
These presentations were really impressive. The students had to defend their approach, the importance of their question, and the feasibility of their methods. They gave a little powerpoint on their new virtual project. They worked in teams to do this and were clearly intensely involved. They also got a lot of hard questions from the audience. I imagine that after 15 weeks of this, the students must be really good at thinking about and defending new research projects. I bet when the time comes to choose a lab in this department-free interactive environment, they do a great job. I know I had a wonderful time telling them about the wonders of social amoebae and learning one more thing about teaching and research. Oh, and did I mention this place is right on the beach?