Exploring Options

Navigating "big science" as a trainee
Biological Engineering

After arriving at MIT in September, I was excited to begin rotating in labs. I did my research, so I knew what professors I wanted to work with. I was ready to meet labmates, do some projects, and find a lab I matched with.

Little did I know that some professors not only ran their own lab but also belonged to an affiliated research institute. In fact, at MIT, the campus is surrounded by dozens of “big science” institutes, in fields ranging from genomics to astrophysics.

As a bioengineering student I had the chance to become familiar with three life sciences-based institutes: the Broad Institute (genomics), the Ragon Institute (immunology), and the Koch Institute (cancer). Coming from a public university with four times the students but a fifth of the endowment of MIT, the sheer number and proximity of 9-figure institutes in and around the greater Boston Area can be daunting.

While these institutes afford exceptional opportunities, these “big science” centers are often under scrutiny in the public space. Although I will leave the hot political debate occurring around “big science” out of this blog, it is a conversation worth looking into. And for graduate students seeking home in these lab spaces, red tape puts more considerations on the table.

Here are five things, for the better or worst, I have learned from working at various institutes based on my six month journey.

  1. Every institute has its own way of doing things. A institute-wide meeting every Tuesday with free food. Technicians who will genomically sequence your cells for you. Varying levels of intellectual property and non-disclosure agreements to agree to. Rooms automatically stocked every morning with all the lab supplies you may need. Weekend retreats to explore all the science going on within the institute walls. From strict red tape to ridiculous perks for graduate students, there is no doubt joining a lab within a larger institute has its ups and downs.

  1. Loyalty matters. After completing orientation at the Broad Institute, for example, they hand you a brand new ID, a Broad mug, and call you a Broadie. Walking through Google-esque workspaces, the sense of belonging is in the air, and with that belonging comes an unspoken commitment. Through learning the who’s who and what’s what in simple chats over coffee, there is no doubt politics in and between groups exist – it becomes a question of how does it affect you. After immersing oneself in the lab environments, it can almost feel like you aren’t a graduate student at MIT, but an employee of the Broad or Lincoln Lab. Remembering the home of your degree is important though, especially as resources and events fall through the email inbox cracks.

  1. Funding is king. Perhaps the loyalty perpetuated is a result of funding – the never-ending quest for PIs to sustain their lab, trainees, and themselves. Even more so, large research institutes suffer from similar pressure. Nice facilities and unmatched resources attract talent, talent produces results, and results, hopefully, bring in more investment. It is not cheap to run top-notch life science research centers. It is the established cycle of results, funding, results, funding, etc. that can drive immense pressure down to the graduate students performing the work. This innate cycle undoubtedly produces leading scientific discoveries and technologies, but getting a feel for the weight one might feel, especially in larger groups, is crucial.

  1. It’s not just a university. Your colleagues at a given lab can vary drastically. In a typical lab, your frequent circle may include postdocs, other graduate students, and a technician or undergraduate student. But, at larger institutes, staff scientists, bioinformaticians, armies of research technicians, clinicians, animal technicians, postdocs and machinists can significantly shift the distribution of your peers. It is no secret that graduate students are expensive and begin, at the least, naive. Trained technicians and experienced postdocs produce, and it is clear that in these research machines, the proportion of these folks is commonly higher. This offers a diverse wealth of knowledge, but comes with, what I perceive, as a more “corporate” feeling of lab. I imagine research in a lab a part of a larger ecosystem offers more insight into what corporate R&D may feel like – more interactions, more diversity in roles, more administration and leadership.

  1. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. For me, the thrust of a doctoral training program is to train in techniques that allow for the proposal and defense of an individual, creative project that advances the field. Large centers and grants offer the exceptional resources of specialized technicians to run experiments, collaborations that give access to hard-to-reach resources like patient samples, and peers to tackle other areas of the project. Quickly, the amount of hands in the pot can dramatically increase. As a new trainee, more hands can mean less autonomy and more difficulty in carving out “your space” in your research field. A cramped kitchen comes with a mixed bag of benefits and impediments – something to consider when joining a lab.

I have found rotating in labs is one of the most valuable experiences as a first-year graduate student. The Biological Engineering program, in which I am a student, affords its students a freedom that allows for personal exploration -- through science, through lab culture, and through research environment. My experiences have shown me a wide range of ways science is conducted at MIT, a university affiliated with some of the most funded research institutes in the world. As a graduate student, whose primary focus is getting the best training and developing skills to ideate and execute individual projects, I found that although joining these groups have some flashy perks (who doesn’t like free lunch every Tuesday or a barista that serves up fancy espressos?), it is worth considering the full picture of joining a community that can sometime seem ill-focused, wrapped in red tape, and unlike the university you fell in love with on visit weekend.

Regardless of what grants, labs, centers, institutes, departments, and schools you may be involved with in graduate school, remember the other forces driving the people and projects around you. Consider how they make an impact, positively or negatively, on your ambitions and needs for graduate school. Graduate students at MIT, particularly in the life sciences or related fields, have an extraordinary number of potential labs. Deeply exploring these options will help you choose the right decision for the next several years of your life. And as a prospective graduate student, checking out the surrounding university neighbors (i.e. affiliated research centers, hospitals, nonprofits funding research, companies with collaborations) could open your options further.