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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Living la vida lab rat by Mollie B. '06

So the moral of the story is that freedom is relative in science. And that we all need more rich friends.

A few entries back, Lena asked “How did you get the job in the lab and are the experiments you do designed by yourself or postdocs, professors, and grad students?”

The easiest question there to answer is how I got my job. The summer before my sophomore year, I emailed about ten professors whose work looked interesting, including my resume and a short cover letter. I got responses from two faculty members, interviewed with one, and took the job. I’ve been in that lab for two and a half years now; I work about 12-15 hours a week during term and 40 a week during summer and IAP. I have my name on a poster that was presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting and on a paper that’s being revised for publication in Cell. When I declared biology as my second major, I picked my UROP supervisor to be my biology advisor (if you have two majors, you get two advisors too), and he (apparently) wrote an absolutely stunning letter of recommendation for my graduate school applications.

In the first project I worked on in the lab, the experiments were designed almost exclusively by the postdoc with whom I work directly, Albert. I was still learning how to do all the different lab protocols, and since I didn’t know how to do most of them, I couldn’t very well design my own experiments. Although I wasn’t in charge of experimental design for this project, it’s not like Albert was hanging over my shoulder watching me do the experiments — he usually doesn’t bother me unless I ask for help. Albert’s an MD/PhD, and works one day a week at Massachusetts General Hospital curing the sick, so even when I wasn’t designing the experiments I had a lot of freedom — and when Albert’s not in the lab, I get to take over his desk!

The project I’ve been working on for the past year is my baby, and I’ve done all of the technical work on it. Albert still helps me with experimental design, but I have a strong enough understanding of both the project and the technical options available to me that I have most of the control. Albert’s always there to help me if I get confused or hit a dead end. I read all the literature regarding my proteins, and when we meet with Morgan (the professor in charge of our lab), it’s my job to prepare a short powerpoint presentation and explain our results to him. Albert says that if I finish the project by the time I graduate, I get to write the first draft of and be first author on the paper describing it.

In some sort of larger sense, what I work on is constrained by what Morgan finds interesting — if I woke up one day and wanted to start a totally new project unrelated to anything Morgan’s interested in, that probably wouldn’t fly. Generally, you’ll get more freedom as you work longer in the lab and prove your competence to a greater degree, so good luck just walking into the office of a professor you’ve never worked for and proposing some crazy research project unrelated to their research goals. You don’t generally get to do that as an undergrad — hell, you don’t generally get to do that as a grad student. You might get to do it as a postdoc.

This is because science is run by the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. In a proximal sense, the person with the gold is the professor (also called “principal investigator” or “PI”; in my case, Morgan) who runs the lab and gets NIH grants; in an ultimate sense, the government is the one with all the gold making all the rules. Science is overwhelmingly funded by grants from government agencies like the NIH, NSF, DOD, or DOE, and the research a given lab does is largely constrained by the optimization of what that lab finds interesting and what their favorite government agency is likely to fund. Until we get more rich friends like Howard Hughes (who started a foundation that lavishly funds the most promising 300 scientists in the US, twelve of whom are at MIT, including Morgan), that’s the way things are going to be.

This focus on doing research that’s likely to be funded leads to what I like to call “last sentence syndrome”. The last sentence of every lab’s research description goes something like “…and this research will lend insight into the process by which [choose one: cells become cancerous, brains get Alzheimer’s, hearts get heart disease].” This is because the NIH is devoted to funding biomedical research, and likes to see that its buckets of money are being used to find cures. So when they see that last sentence, the NIH is all “yayyyy!” and the scientist getting the funding is all “yayyyy!” and the public reads about it in the newspaper and is all “yayyyyy!” and the people with life-threatening illnesses are all “so that cure for my life-threatening illness that you said was going to happen with gene-transfer therapy ten years ago and with stem cells last year… did you send that by FedEx? Because I HAVEN’T GOTTEN IT and maybe FedEx has the wrong address. kthxbye.”

So the moral of the story is that freedom is relative in science. And that we all need more rich friends.

My week, and my weekend.
I worked in the lab 30 hours this week.

This was, of course, in addition to taking three classes, cheerleading, and answering an absurd number of questions on CC. And fun stuff, like walking home from work with Jessie, eating pizza in Ben‘s office with the other bloggers, interviewing five GRT candidates for my living group, and stopping by Ben’s office and talking for an hour, resulting in me being late to cook dinner for Adam and Ben writing me an excuse note.

So it was a good week, just extraordinarily exhausting. And Adam and I decided we needed to get off-campus and go out to dinner and see a movie. I wanted to see V for Vendetta because I’d heard it was a gripping dystopic view of a totalitarian society; Adam wanted to see it because he heard that lots of stuff got blown up. Well, at least we both wanted to see it.

We hopped on the T and got off at Kenmore Square, where we ate dinner at the Pizzeria Uno next to Fenway Park. (One of the best things about going to school next to a major city is that it’s really easy to get off-campus and eat at restaurants and do fun stuff. One of the best things about going to school next to Boston is that there are so many college students in town that you can do those things on a budget.) After that, we went to the movie (which was amazing) at the Fenway AMC, where I had to eat my apple pie from the restaurant with a straw because there were no plastic forks. It actually worked pretty well — I slurped up the ice cream, then scooped the pie crust and speared the apples. Necessity is the mother of invention. Again. After the show ended, we hopped back on the T and got back to campus around 11. It was a nice little night on the town.

Short answers to questions.

1. Anonymous asked “Does anyone know how the proportion of women to men breaks down by department?” Ask and ye shall receive.

2. A course 7 prospective wrote

I was wondering if you could direct me to an entry that talks about the grad school application process. I’m currently a freshie at MIT and was just curious about the grad school application process.
My GPA is not looking too hot right now and I was wondering what a “typical” or range of GPAs would be for admission into a grad school (like the ones that you were admitted into; and congrats very much on ur successes! :)) and how much it matters that you attend a HYPMS/MIT vs. say a state school. (like will they even factor that in…that you went to a school w/ very little grade inflation?)

First, here’s my entry on grad school admissions.

Second, yes, grad schools will most definitely consider the fact that you went to MIT. I had a 4.4(/5.0) when I applied, and I got into more (and better) programs than friends of mine from other schools who had 3.9(/4.0) or 4.0(/4.0) averages. At UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard’s recruitment weekends, a little over 10% of the prospective students were from MIT. Think about how unlikely that is just from a sheer numbers perspective — many, many students from state schools with 4.0s were passed over in favor of the MIT kids with imperfect grades. We have stellar research experience, and that’s what graduate schools care about. If you shoot for an overall GPA of between 4.2 and 4.5 at MIT, you should be fine as long as you have plenty of research under your belt.

Finally, I will note that your GPA will almost certainly go up from what it is freshman year. First term freshman year, I got a 3.25(/5.0) — or would have, if first term weren’t pass/no record! — and second term I got a 4.0/5.0, with a C in 8.02. I’ve pulled two straight 4.8s in the last two terms, and now have a solid 4.5.

9 responses to “Living la vida lab rat”

  1. Laura says:

    I love Ben’s note. =D

  2. shen says:

    I’m pretty interested in UROP and I noticed on their website there are two options of being paid. Could you discuss the differences? Thanks.

  3. Dani says:

    Thanks Mollie, for another great blog! Even though I was not admitted to MIT, I just wanted to let you know that I have been following your posts (almost religiously, and it will be hard for me to slowly wean of of them), but I’m so appreciative that I’ve learned the importance of getting involved in research early on as an undergrad to prepare for grad school. Coming from a community where the typical goal is to take over the family farm, “good advice” has been in short supply, so it is beneficial gaining insight from someone who has walked the path. Going into high school, I probably wasn’t as informed about all the things I should have and needed to take advantage of during my high school career to prepare me for the competition of undergrad admittion, but hopefully I will be better off when it comes time to apply to grad school. I’m just really glad that I stretched my applications and applied to some other great private universities known for their research instead of taking the safety route and going to UW Madison like half the kids in at my school (nothing against Madison, just not the best learning environment for me as I see it). Sry if I have rambled on about myself. V for Vendetta is a great movie by the way. Thanks again!

  4. “The project I’ve been working on for the past year is my baby”

    Who’s the father?

  5. Steve says:

    Hey! You left the first comment on my LJ question about MIT graduate biology. I’m looking for thoughts/tips about the professors and labs involved in the program, especially in microbiology and bioengineering. I dunno how much you know about those things, but I’m going to poke around your blog now.

  6. Phillip Kim says:

    wow it seems like everyone worked at NIH – I was also an intern while u worked there! rite now i do part-time, technical PCR stuff (talk about funding a MIT education! :] )

    great to hear some insight on your research experience. Good luck in grad school!

  7. Jay says:

    Hey Mollie! Great entry. regarding the UROPs, is that the case for only the sciences, or is the same with engineering too? I always had this idea tht all one needed to do was to make a casual remark in the hallway to a professor and he or she would just throw money at you. Imagine… Me,” Hey Professor (insert name here) I was thinking about building a gold-plated hydrogen super car, how about it?” Professor,” That sounds great! I’m short on cash right now, but here is a million dollars to start with. Remember to come back for more!” Me,” Thanks Professor (insert name here)! You are the best!”

  8. Adnan Esmail says:

    Thanks for the informative entry. I was wondering whether you could better explain the presentation aspect of your research. You mention a PowerPoint presentation to the lab professor, how often do you present and what format do you present in? Also, you said that you’ll get to write the first draft of the paper if you complete the work in time, how hard is it to write the research paper? How long does it take? I know I’d definitely enjoy the research, but am apprehensive about the formal and written part of the research. If you could elaborate on this aspect, I’d be greatful. I know I’d definitely enjoy the research, but how


  9. Anonymous says:

    Will graduate school or med school look at the gpa out of 5.0 or out of 4.0? I personally think it is fairer for the gpa to be looked at out of 5.0 since MIT is extremely tough.