Fertile ground for deep roots

Why am I here? I came to OHSU, those many moons ago, because I wanted to be a scientist. I was taught since childhood that “knowledge is the wings wherewith we fly to heaven,” and Science was my passion (that was Shakespeare, by the way). To be a scientist, I needed a Ph.D., and I thought OHSU would be the best place to complete a Ph.D. I never intended to become a student leader, yet here I am. In my first year, I was part of the group of ladies who started Women in Science. In my second year, I acted as representative to the All-Hill Student Council. In my third year, I was elected Graduate Student Organization (GSO) treasurer, my fourth year vice president, my fifth year president, and let’s stop counting and just say I am still president (I am planning on being done July 2017). I have acted as student chair to Research Week, I helped plan the first Women in Academic Medicine leadership conference, and I have seen the GSO renaissance. So you see, I have been around OHSU a while now. I have seen ideas about graduate education proposed, some come to fruition and some cast aside.

Throughout this calendar year, there have been fact-finding discussions on campus, many of led by the Creative IDEAS committee, collecting ideas about graduate education and the School of Medicine. The university is in a unique position to create a future graduate program apart from others, one informed by faculty and current graduate students who are facing the scientific, economic, and job realities of today. Synthesizing the goals and structure of the Graduate Program of Tomorrow began with forums hosted by the Creative IDEAS committee where students and faculty were encouraged to voice their opinions on what works, what doesn’t work, what should change and what shouldn’t change. It was an interesting exercise for me personally, because it stimulated a lot of reflection and introspection. There are a lot of things the School of Medicine Graduate Studies does well and I have always found faculty receptive to student issues. There are a lot of things the OHSU research community does well. As a prospective alumni, I have a vested interest in the continued success of graduate education here. I want it to continue to train successful scientists, with a foot firmly planted on the side of innovation.

What is the intent of graduate training? Introspection is an interesting phenomenon, and I have had my fair share of fantastic, life altering events and soul-crushing experiences in graduate school. Someone once told me that to pursue a Ph.D. is to resign oneself to semi-annual existential life crises (or maybe I read it in a comic…?).  Experiments work, experiments don’t work. It’s your fault, it’s not your fault. Your future is in your control, you have no control whatsoever. You work too much, you work too little. You want to finish, there is no end in sight. Your mentor wants you out, your mentor won’t let you go. Your mentor is a bully, you are too emotional. But ultimately these bipolar seesaws are OK because you will finish, you will be successful and you will go on to have a life. But then you hear that one story about that one student who did not graduate that one year and, in a panic stricken moment, you conclude that could be you.

I was once told by a faculty member that, in graduate school, I should be eating, sleeping and breathing SCIENCE every day, every hour. On the bus I should be reading articles. With my friends I should be talking nothing but science. While being told this prescription, I imagined a proverbial pilgrim from the Middle Ages, clothed in brown sac-cloth, crawling barefoot along the dusty path to some tottered monastery having been told it housed an ancient relic, let’s say the thumb, of a saint and that if touched would cure his blindness. While telling me to forget TV, forget movies, forget books, forget my friends and family, all I kept hearing was forget yourself. Is this what graduate education meant – that I was required to forfeit myself? Is this what Science demands – that it exists in a bubble devoid of life? And what about the University – surely it has responsibilities to me, the student?

What is a Ph.D.? A quick Wikipedia search tells me the modern iteration of the Ph.D. was first defined in Germany in the early 19th century, but its roots go much, much deeper than the 1800s. They trace back to the early Christian church, where the word Doctor was used to describe the apostles and early church fathers who taught and interpreted the Bible. The Latin word doctor means, simply, teacher, and thus the ancient doctors were religious leaders charged with saving people’s souls. According to Wikipedia, it took a papal act to allow the first non-sacred doctoral degree to be awarded in Paris somewhere between 1150-1200. With the Age of Enlightenment starting in the early 1700’s, and the emphasis on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, scientific progress was reborn. Thus, the Ph.D. of today is a child of reason, of liberty, and of science. To me, a Ph.D. means I have furthered human knowledge. And while a Ph.D. says I have reached the level of teacher, it does not mean I will teach.  But the Ph.D. is the final product of the journey, not the journey itself.

How should Ph.D. scientists be trained? Einstein once said that most people think “it is intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.” He said he never taught his “pupils, [he] only attempt[ed] to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Conditions. Any human knows that living conditions directly affect mood, performance, and health. Any lab dweller will tell you tools and conditions are important, be it incubator temperatures, humidity, light cycles, media, pipette tips, cage sizes, or antibodies. If OHSU wishes to produce Ph.D. scientists who rigorously discover and innovate, then it needs to mandate a training environment that supports, hones, directs, and challenges the candidate. Supports does not mean coddle or micromanage. Hones does not mean break down or limit. Directs does not mean rebuild or change. And challenges does not mean prevent, impose, or ostracize. I did my undergrad at Scripps College and on the wall by Honnold Gate is carved a quote from Ellen Browning Scripps, reminding the college that its paramount obligation “is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.”  Fifty years ago, to go to graduate school in research science meant you were going to become a scientist. It still does. What has changed is not the product, but rather the market that buys the product. The University has an obligation to recognize the changing times and adjust its training accordingly.

These ruminations are not to say that our training is necessarily lacking. I have taken my fair share of required classes, elective classes, classes I did not have to take but that were necessary for my research, and totally pointless classes. Some faculty are fantastic educators (I could list 10 here right now off the top of my head), some faculty are not. Here’s the thing, the bottom line: I did not come here to take classes, I came to become a scientist. I have yet to see data showing a direct positive relationship between hours spent in class and successful scientific endeavor.

Who are the scientists of the future? We all recognize that the world is being populated by Ph.D.’s in research science who are using their skill sets in environments apart from the lab.  The School of Medicine has already started to recognize this and The Career & Professional Development Center has done a fantastic job in helping students seeking both traditional and non-traditional jobs post-graduation. But this November I went to my very first Society for Neuroscience meeting. On the first night of the conference, I found myself sitting at a round table with my mentor (science father), his mentor (my science grandfather) and his wife (my science grandmother), and a PI who has been trained in the lab where my mentor did his post-doc (my science step-uncle?), and two other students. Thirty years of science, of stories about the people of science, the evolution of science, the future of science, sat at this table. I imagined we three students not continuing on, of slowly backing away from the table. Would these moments end? How will the culture evolve? Science is more than the bench, but the bench propels it forward in a wonderful symbiotic relationship. Graduate education should aid this evolution, facilitate it, and it allow it to grow.

Bookmark and Share

Add Comment

About the Author

A PhD candidate in Physiology & Pharmacology



Ever wondered what life is like as a student at OHSU? What does it take to become a researcher? Just how gross is gross anatomy? Welcome to the blog that answers these – and many other – questions. It’s students writing first-hand about their commitment to careers in science and health care. It’s honest about the challenges as well as the joys. It’s not always pretty. But it is our story. Thank you for sharing it with us. And please, let us know what you think.

Participation Guidelines

Remember: information you share here is public; it isn't medical advice. Need advice or treatment? Contact your healthcare provider directly. Read our Terms of Use and this disclaimer for details.