The Circle Game

Over the last 6 weeks, 2 of my 6 graduate students have defended their dissertations and graduated–which brings me great joy in that they were each highly sought after and both will be heading to outstanding research labs of their choice to continue their training and careers.

sai + bishuang
My two young newly-minted PhDs and yours truly, recently.

I look with great pride at the achievements of these students. In just 4.5 years in my lab, one student has published 4 first-author papers and been an author on 10 published papers–with another first author paper recently resubmitted. The other has published 6 papers, two of them as first author, and has two more first author papers recently resubmitted to journals. And I will add that their primary papers are well respected and cited in the field–so I am very proud of their accomplishments.

I have been at my current position as a faculty member for exactly 10 years, and these two students are #4 and #5 to come out with PhDs. I have also graduated a Masters student and had 2 post-docs train with me: one of whom moved on to a faculty position last summer, and the second of whom is leaving for a new position at the end of this month. Turnover in a science lab is inevitable–it’s not a vicious cycle, but part of the “Circle Game” (as Joni Mitchell once coined the phrase).

Many mentors bemoan the graduation of a student–indeed, this interface of student-mentor on the issue of graduation–a potential flashpoint if ever there was one–is a major theme in my soon-to-be-published novel, “A Degree of Betrayal” (coming soon!). Mentors seem to have difficulty letting go–after all, it takes 2-3 years until the student has completed her/his coursework and degree requirements and developed both the technical skills and critical thinking necessary to really be an effective researcher. So by the time the student starts to become productive, in many cases it seems that they are already wrapping things up.

But while I do have some mixed feelings–particularly about the uncertainty of proper continuity–this is an essential part of science. It’s even rejuvenating–the need to reinvent oneself and train the next generation. So far, also, it has not been disappointing. Great students graduate, and great students step up and take their place. New approaches, fresh ideas, and, well–I certainly don’t become redundant. That’s all a part of the “Circle Game.”

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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