As a force of nature, you can’t get much more powerful than a first-year rotating graduate student: one part youthful stamina and nine parts unrelenting enthusiasm. This year in our institute I took part in a new experiment for dealing with the annual crop of incoming PhD candidates. Previously, before embarking on their first placement, they would have been subjected to a month of lectures and a series of practical demonstrations. These demos used to take place in the unused half of our laboratory, supervised by one of the more dynamic lab heads: brand-new boxes of gleaming Gilsons and tips and a series of out-of-the-box experiments designed to flex virgin thumb muscles and get feet wet. Although it was always heart-warming to see the troupe of white-coated fledglings following their instructor around the lab, I often wondered how useful – or interesting – these exercises actually were.
This year, though, someone came up with the idea of putting the students into teams of two, assigning them a gene and asking them to find out as much as possible about it, both through literature searches and direct experimentation, in a three-week period. Their first task would be working out who in the building would be most appropriate to give them a hand, based on the identity of the gene, and then identifying which people would be the best expert advisors for any given task. Of course the bulk of supervision would fall on the person whose pet gene had been assigned to the pair, but the idea was to spread the load of supervision across the whole building while giving the students the skills they needed, including the fine art of schmoozing and scrounging – which in some ways might be just as important as ace pipetting for long-term success.
One of the genes from my screen was selected as student bait (with my blessing, of course), and soon a twin whirlwind had blasted into our lab. The great thing about having students around, even for a short time, is that it forces you to dust off that important task that’s been languishing because you simply haven’t had time to deal with it. You might think you’re busy, but when two pairs of puppy-dog eyes are staring at you imploringly, you really have no choice but to make time to help. Every time you agree to supervise someone, you run the risk of putting in a lot of effort for very little tangible output for your own project, so you always hope that it will be worth your while.
Dear reader, the students exceeded my wildest dreams. In only a fortnight, they’d made two DNA constructs, performed a key rescue experiment in cells and made a preliminary foray into inspecting the effects of gene knockdown on RNA splicing. A few nights they even worked til midnight, and I had to physically restrain one of them from doing more experiments the evening before their big report was due. They were so autonomous near the end that I often had to chase them to find out what results they’d actually achieved. And they weren’t half coy about their accumulating data: one afternoon I came back to my desk to find this tantalizing little heart-breaker:
The postdoc is always the last to know.