*Reposted from 09/11/20
So, it's your first year of grad school — congrats! But your first year is during a pandemic — yikes! Graduate school is stressful enough without having to worry about a deadly virus. Hopefully, this post will help you navigate through your first year by providing concrete advice for choosing your new lab and acclimating to a new workspace.
As a first-year STEM student, your school likely requires you to conduct research in various labs (usually 2-4) for a temporary period of time. After these rotations are complete, you will choose a lab as your new home for the next 4-7 years! It's an important choice to make, and you aren't alone if this process brings about some anxiety. Here are 10 tips to help ensure you arrive at the right decision.
1. Keep an open mind. You might arrive at your school with a PI or research topic in mind. Unfortunately, there are many factors at play that dictate what you will research other than your preferences. Have a Plan B and C just in case Plan A is not in your cards.
2. Shrink that chip on your shoulder. Its tempting to show-off and be over-competitive with your new lab mates. Don't. It's an awful way to make new friends. To be blunt here, your new co-workers don't care how smart you are. They want a lab-mate who is a hard-worker and helpful to work alongside. Be yourself. Save the energy you would spend on trying to impress others to do well at the tasks at hand.
3. Remember why you are there. The purpose of a rotation is to test out a lab. You are not there to churn out data, work long weeks, and publish a paper in a short amount of time. If you feel anxious or overworked during a rotation, imagine what five years in that lab will be like.
4. Ditch the "that's not how my old lab did it." saying. Your new lab will do things in new ways, and there might be a reason for that. When starting work in a new place, it's easy to get caught up in comparisons to the past. But this is a fresh start, embrace the changes and be willing to learn from your new lab-mates and mentors.
5. Ask about funding. $$$$. This point cannot be stressed enough. Just because a PI is taking on rotation students does not mean they have funding to bring you on as a full-time student. Before rotating with a PI, ask if they have money to cover your stipend. If they do not, consider rotating elsewhere. If a PI does not directly answer this question, they might be baiting you to get free labor.
6. Discuss potential thesis topics. Many labs treat students as employees. The students produce data like lab techs, and the thesis is an afterthought. Labs with this mindset are reluctant to let students graduate because they are precious cheap labor. It's important to have research expectations outlined before joining the lab as a student.
7. Speak to other students and faculty in the department. Check-in with others to learn about the reputation of the lab.
8. Ask about time off. Trust me; you need time off. The ideal answer to this question is, "of course, you can take vacations, just communicate with me first." Inquiring about vacation time is an imperative question if your family does not live nearby. Ideally, you should be able to take time off around the holidays and also have personal vacations.
9. Ask about the work schedule. Some labs have strict schedules; others are come and go. Your PI should not demand or coerce you to work more than 40 hours/week. Overtime is your choice.
10. Discuss career development with your PI. It's helpful to have a PI who is also a mentor. Are they invested in your success? Do they support you taking time off for career development? Are they open-minded to non-academic careers? A "no" to any of these questions is concerning.
Lastly, look out for the following Red flags. Any of these behaviors are serious and should not go ignored.
Does the perfect lab exist … hmmm …. perhaps not. Even if you are careful in choosing a lab, you may find yourself feeling unsure of your choice in the future. Start building a support system around you now. If a PI puts you in a difficult position, you'll be happy to have a supportive thesis committee and empathetic mentors outside of your lab to advocate for you.
Good luck this year! And as an academic, remember to stay positive and be kind.
If you follow any beauty influencers on social media, you may be familiar with hair vitamins, supplements designed to make your hair grow long and thick. Of course, these influencers already have long and luxurious hair; most are also sporting hair extensions or fillers. Yet, we are lead to believe their lush hair is the result of hair vitamins.
Insta influencers aren’t the most honest source for advice on beauty supplements — recall the skinny tea phase where celebrities advertised laxatives. But perhaps there is some truth to using hair vitamins.
Hair vitamins come in a few brands, so let’s take a look at the ingredients of three common hair vitamins:
Ok, so we have real vitamins in these supplements. Great! But can they give me Kylie-grade hair?
Folate is essential for DNA and protein synthesis, and deficiency can cause hair and nail growth defects. Folate is naturally occurring in leafy veggies, fruits, meats, and grain. Folic acid is a form of folate that can be stored and supplemented in our food. Folic acid fortification of bread and other wheat products is mandated by many countries, including the US and Canada, to combat birth defects caused by folate deficiency. Therefore, if you eat a balanced diet, you likely acquire the necessary folic acid for healthy nail and hair growth and do not need further supplementation.
Zinc aids in protein synthesis, immune function, and cell division and can be found in meat, nuts, beans, fish, and whole grains. The relationship between zinc levels and hair loss is debated, with some studies showing a correlation between zinc levels and hair loss pathologies such as alopecia. Interestingly, zinc pyrithione shampoos seem to improve hair growth, but this is achieved topically due to reduction of oxidation on the scalp. However, there is no evidence to suggest zinc supplementation supports hair growth in individuals without zinc deficiency.
Seeing a pattern here?
Deficiency in several vitamins can cause hair loss, however, supplementation and overconsumption of these vitamins do not guarantee increased hair growth, especially in healthy individuals. Empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of hair vitamins is scarce. A well-balanced diet can easily substitute hair vitamins. So, save your money! This author declares hair vitamins to be pseudo-science.
It's often believed that cancer results from a modern lifestyle, i.e., eating more processed foods, increasing exposure to various radiation sources, and the general fast pace of life. The truth is that the earliest report of cancer, or the disease that later became known as cancer, dates back to around 1600 BC in ancient Egypt. Yes, perhaps the modern lifestyle has increased cancer cases, but it has also provided us with the necessary technology to detect the disease earlier and treat it more effectively. It should also be noted that humans live significantly longer now than a century or two ago, so naturally, the incidence of cancer will increase.
Cancer treatment comprises of three different areas, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. However, when you think of a cancer patient, it is the jarring side effects of chemotherapy that come to mind. While there are many resources on the internet to describe the different side effects of chemotherapy and how to deal with them as patients or caregivers, they rarely discuss the mechanisms through which the drugs work.
Cancer arises from a change in the DNA of a single cell that causes it to multiply and grow unchecked. The causes are varied, such as exposure to too much radiation (which is why radiology technicians walk out of the room when taking an X-ray), exposure to chemical carcinogens such as tobacco smoke or asbestos, viruses such as HPV, or copy errors during DNA replication. These events give rise to the same problem: a cell that replicates faster consumes more resources and does not die when it should. And here lies the crux of the problem: cancer cells are not that much different from healthy cells, so anything that kills the cancer cells will likely kill the healthy cells as well. The trick lies in killing the cancer cells faster than the healthy cells.
"Cancer therapy is like beating the dog with a stick to get rid of his fleas."
How to get away with killing cancer
Since cancer cells grow and replicate faster than healthy cells, most anticancer drugs aim to inhibit the replication process. This can be achieved through targeting DNA or proteins related to cell replication, obstructing the metabolism of the cells, or impeding cell division. Some commonly used drugs like oxaliplatin and carboplatin are involved in all three processes and are referred to as cytotoxic compounds.
And now for the kicker: cancer is treated with a combination of the different types of drugs with varying therapeutic mechanisms for specific cancers in different patients. Therefore, each cancer patient receives a cocktail of various medications that have been optimized to treat their particular cancer.
The compound classes that target DNA include alkylating agents, anticancer antibiotics, and some transition metal complexes. These compounds bind directly to the DNA, climbing in between the DNA base pairs or associating with the DNA so that the DNA cannot be replicated. The inability to replicate DNA causes the cancer cell to senesce (stop multiplying) or die.
Interfering with metabolism
Drugs targeting metabolism include antifolates and antimetabolites, which replace compounds in the cell's metabolic cycle. I.e., folic acid is crucial in cell growth and replication, so antifolates take the place of folic acid but do not perform the necessary functions, so the cancer cells are essentially starved.
Blocking cell division
Antimitotic compounds target cell division, and the most used compounds are plant alkaloids such as vincristine and vinblastine. These compounds prevent the formation of microtubules that guide the separation of cells during mitosis. So, if the cells cannot separate, they cannot replicate.
Right on target: creating cancer-cell specific therapies
While the above mentioned compounds are very effective in treating cancer, they do not discriminate between healthy cells and cancer cells, which gives rise to the nasty side effects we have come to associate with cancer treatment. A more recent class of compounds called "targeted therapies" provide more selective interaction with cellular components specific to the cancer cells.
Targeted therapies include:
At the intersection of cytotoxic agents and targeted treatments lies hormone therapies and kinase inhibitors. While they are more selective towards the cancer cells, treatments may still negatively impact the patient.
Hormone therapy can treat hormone-dependent cancers, such as certain types of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers dependent on estrogen and certain types of prostate and testicular cancers dependent on testosterone. By cutting off access to the necessary hormones, the cancer cells are starved of an essential building block. Removing the hormone from the rest of the body also has extensive side effects relating to fertility, secondary sex characteristics, and sexual performance. Still, the side effects are generally less detrimental than other cytotoxic agents.
Kinase inhibitors target kinetic enzymes that contribute to cell growth. Some cancers express more of a particular kinase than healthy cells, while other cancers express a mutated kinase that is specific to the cancer cells. The mutated KRAS has been a holy grail in medicinal chemistry since it is found in numerous high fatality cancers. The development of an inhibitor has long eluded scientists; however, the FDA recently approved a KRAS inhibitor, Lumakras.
And finally, the current buzzword: immunotherapy. Immunotherapy involves using antibodies that bind proteins specific a cancer cell, thereby recruiting the immune system to clear the cancer. Immunotherapy is the most specific chemotherapy available, but since it is so specific, the number of cancers that can be treated are still limited. Personalized treatments come into play here, where a sample of a patient's cancerous tissue is used to develop an antibody for that patient, like designing a key for a specific lock.
Personalized treatments are still highly specialized and expensive pursuits, yet they might become the future of cancer treatment. Immunotherapy also includes the development of cancer vaccines, such as mRNA vaccines targeting KRAS.
For further reading on the topic, I highly recommend the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Prof. Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies. The book is accessible to scientists and non-scientists alike and does not assume any knowledge in the field of cancer biology. It tells the tale of how theories around cancer evolved and how the current treatments were discovered and refined, all interspersed with gripping tales of the author's own experiences as a practicing oncologist.
Similarly, the National Cancer Institute's website also provides a lot of practical information if you or a loved one is currently busy with cancer treatment and need some guidance.