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lately, graduate school has got me feeling like a manic-depressive.

the week started off smoothly: my current research was going well (which always makes me happy) and, in preparation for my final lab rotation, i had finished setting up meetings with all the relevant folk at mit who might be interested in bioenergy research.

and then, on wednesday, i suffered a mild panic attack. sometime that morning, my brain finally put all the pieces together and i realized the whole bioenergy research thing wasn’t going to work out. there were a confluence of factors:

1) it looked like my current lab wasn’t going to win that biofuels grant (they haven’t heard from the DoE in months).
2) the metabolic engineering lab that i had a crush on turned out to be a bad fit. the lab was huge ( > 20 people ) and appeared to be organized factory style: grad students were partitioned into specialized sub-groups with little research overlap. the lab was also overcrowded (a grad student i spoke with queued for 6 months for a lab bench) and the PI (principle investigator) was hard to get a hold of (same grad student estimated 2 week waits for setting up personal appointments). i’ve been told by numerous faculty that one of the keys to grad school is to “find a lab where people can teach you how to do good science.” honestly, i still don’t know what that means. nonetheless, i’m pretty sure that this lab wasn’t the place to find out “how to do science.”
3) the PI of the other metabolic engineering lab interested in bioenergy, it turns out, isn’t even actively researching on the subject.

and so depression sank in. up until that point, i had focused nearly all of my efforts on a bioenergy phd project. such a project was probably still possible, but it clearly wouldn’t have too much support from a lab group – something crucial if i was to make any real headway on a problem. i needed to find a new phd research topic and i only have one (of four) lab rotation left.

so i followed standard protocol and moped around christina. the usual “this sucks, maybe i should drop out blah-blah-blah” kind of melodrama.

trying to shut me up, she pointed out that at least i really enjoyed my first rotation; perhaps i could just work there.

slowly, it dawned on me that christina was on to something. that lab is small, tightly-knit, and friendly. the PI is young, enthusiastic, and super approachable; he practices a true “open-door” policy – a rarity here, since many professors even have personal secretaries. and importantly, the lab does really cool stuff: they’re some of the pioneers in ocean microbial genomics. if you haven’t heard anything about the ocean’s microbes, the PI’s super-enticing sales-pitch goes something along the lines of:

microbes make up a majority of the earth’s biomass. most of them live in the ocean. these ocean microbes actually do more photosynthesis than the world’s plants combined (so they’re pretty important). nonetheless, people really don’t know much about how these bugs work. let’s go find out!

i think i’ll take him up on the offer; i’ve decided to spend my last rotation in a computational lab. the idea is to find a group of people with some nice algorithmic skills to complement the wealth of biological knowledge that lives in the microbial group. and i’ve got a good idea of one or two people who’d fill that role nicely.

so goodbye bioenergy. i was, and still am, really into you. but, it looks like there’s just so much opportunity in microbial genomics (more on that some other time) and a clever group of people here interested in the problem. i’m excited.

and my week ends as it began: i’m happy and optimistic. which worries me, since things can only go downhill from here.

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One Response to “goodbye bioenergy, hello microbial genomics”

  1. on 05 Mar 2006 at 8:32 am Alex

    Heh. Been there, except that what I really wanted to work on was malaria. I’d even lined up a well-known malaria researcher from Harvard’s School of Public Health who was willing to have me work in their lab, but I couldn’t find a single person at MIT interested in being a co-advisor. Lesson learned: if you really want to work on medically-related stuff, go to a university that also has a medical school.

    On the flip side, I’m very happy with what I’m doing now, so it all turned out ok in the end :-) I suspect the same will be true for you. There are lots of interesting problems, and, at least at the beginning of a career, it’s probably more important to acquire a core skill set than to work on The Ultimate Dream Project.


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