Students choose labs via scientific ‘speed dating’

Graduate student Allyson Mayer visits with Carlos Bernal-Mizrachi, MD, assistant professor of medicine and of cell biology and physiology, at the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences poster presentation event in August.
Graduate student Allyson Mayer visits with Carlos Bernal-Mizrachi, MD, assistant professor of medicine and of cell biology and physiology, at the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences poster presentation event in August.

Allyson Mayer walked from poster to poster, weighing considerations that will help shape her next few years at Washington University in St. Louis and her career as a biological scientist. Her mission: to pick at least three laboratories for rotations before committing to the one where she will complete her PhD thesis research.

Mayer mulled over her choices as more than 90 faculty members who had gathered last month at the Eric P. Newman Education Center on the Medical Campus manned posters highlighting their research findings. They were vying for Mayer’s attention, as well as the attention of other graduate students in need of laboratory experience to earn their PhDs or MD/PhDs through the Medical Scientist Training Program.

Joseph C. Corbo, MD, PhD, an associate professor of pathology and immunology, genetics and of ophthalmology and visual sciences, summed up the faculty’s mission to students who approached his poster: “We’re here to show you our lab does exciting work that might interest you,” he said.

The scientific speed-dating/job-fair hybrid is an annual poster presentation hosted by Washington University’s Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences. DBBS is a unique part of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences that offers 12 interdisciplinary doctoral training programs led by faculty researchers from more than 37 schools and departments, including the School of Medicine.

From the left, Stacey L. Rentschler, MD, PhD, discusses her laboratory’s research with first-year graduate students Catherine Lipovsky, Cheng Cheng and Jeanette Gehrig. (Credit: Allison Braun)

At the event, students pursuing a PhD or MD/PhD have an opportunity to meet faculty members and learn about their research before signing up for laboratory rotations. A rotation lasts about six to 10 weeks, giving students a chance to experience a laboratory hands-on. Students also are exposed to a wide variety of research, some of which they might not have considered before.

Some students try to choose their rotations by visiting the DBBS faculty website and reading up on professors’ projects, but meeting those professors can bring a lab to life.

“It’s one thing to read about the labs, but it’s another to meet someone who’s really excited about their work and be able to ask them questions,” explained Stacey L. Rentschler, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine and of developmental biology, who presented her work at the event.

Susan Shen, a fourth-year student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, is working on her thesis research in Corbo’s laboratory. She came to the poster presentation to help recruit students and offer her perspective on choosing a laboratory.

“For me, the most important criteria were the lab’s dynamics, research interest, and the principal investigator’s commitment to training,” Shen said. “Each student’s criteria for labs vary substantially.”

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