So, what exactly do you do?

“How is school going? Are you writing your thesis? What year did you start again? When are you going to be done?” As a grad student, I get these questions more often than you might think, and a lot of the time I don’t really want to answer them! But, for you, I’ll do my best. :)

I am the first member of my family to go to grad school (my mother being the 2nd- she started her MSc in Education one year ago) so the concept of being in academia and research was a bit foreign to them. But, when I come home to visit I tell them “yes, school (well, actually research/work) is going well”, “no, I’m not writing my thesis yet (I need to do research, get the data, and publish papers first)”, “I plan to be finished in a couple more years, maybe” (an arbitrary deadline because I have no idea when I’ll be finished)... you get the picture.

The question I often struggle with answering is “So, what exactly do you do for your PhD?”

I can answer this question in so many different ways, and sometimes it’s hard for me to know what kind of answer you’re looking for. I most often start with my thesis, because I can talk about my own research for hours without even noticing how long it’s been. This usually gets people very confused when I start going off about immune cells and monocytes and monocyte subsets and monocyte conversion and transcription factors and … did I lose you?

I’ll try to break it down for you. I study a Staphylococcus aureus (or Staph) infection in the skin, and I want to know what the monocyte, an innate immune cell, does at the site of infection. With me so far? I use a fancy microscope to image the monocyte in vivo (which means in real live animals). Our microscopes allow me to look inside the skin infection and see where the monocytes are and how they are behaving in real time. This technique is called intravital microscopy.

I am also interested in how the Staph infection heals, and monocytes might have an important role in the healing process. To study healing, I image the collagen structure in skin. This type of imaging is a bit more complicated because I use multiphoton microscopy to acquire second harmonic generation signals of the collage structure which is a label-free method of detecting collagen wait I lost you again, sorry…

“So that’s really cool, studying a Staph infection…monocytes…skin…” then most people back away because they think I’m infected with Staph. No, I haven’t been accidentally infected with Staph, I am very good at sterile technique in the lab. Interesting fact - Staph aureus is actually found in your nose and on your skin (in 30% of the population), and this bacterium is happily living there without causing disease. If you get a sliver or step on a piece of glass that happens to be contaminated with a tiny bit of Staph aureus, this is where it causes problems. Serious infections that originate the skin can lead to necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating disease), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood) or sepsis (systemic inflammation from bacteria in the blood, leading to multi-organ failure).

To prevent patients from losing limbs from flesh eating disease, or to prevent them developing sepsis, the easiest solution is to control the infection locally in the skin and stop bacteria spreading to other organs. Unfortunately, Staph aureus is becoming more and more drug resistant so treatment options are limited. This is why I am studying the immune response to Staph in the skin, so that there may be a way to stimulate the immune system to kill the bug (sort of like using immunotherapy for cancer) and avoid using drugs or antibiotics that are now ineffective.

This is just scratching the surface of my research, and I don’t expect you to understand all the details. If you want me to clarify anything or if you have other questions please leave me a comment!

So now you know a bit about what I do in the lab for my research, but what about my day to day life as a grad student?

The one thing I love about grad school is that every day is different and your direction can take a turn at any moment. There are meetings I have to go to regularly, like lab meetings every other week (usually for 4 hours), weekly journal clubs, weekly seminars, classes in my first year. Other than that, my schedule is (usually) open to do my research and work on other things. I’ll try and break down all the other things I do as a grad student:

  • I spend a good amount of time talking about science and experiments with postdocs or other PhD students in my lab. I think this is really important because this is where new crazy ideas come from. If you’re from a smaller lab or if you’re the only student in your lab, try and find a few other students and postdocs in your field to bounce ideas around. Someone might know how to do that experiment you’ve been trying to troubleshoot for the last 2 months.

  • I catch up on my reading list every day and add new papers to the ever growing list of papers I need to read. I’ll get to them eventually.

  • I answer emails (lots of emails). And I drink lots of coffee.

  • I spend a lot of my time planning experiments for the next week, as I come from a big lab, and other trainees need to use the microscopes for their research.

  • I should be writing my paper now, it’s on the to do list, but I choose to write blog posts instead. Priorities, right?

  • I spend time writing scholarship applications to funding agencies, like NSERC or CIHR (which are a beast to put together).

  • I prepare for my lab meeting presentations, seminars, conference presentations or posters, and usually go to one or two conferences a year.

  • I meet friends and colleagues for coffee to chat about their day or their research, my research, about an event we want to plan, anything really.

  • I help students and postdocs in my lab review their manuscripts before they submit.

  • I try and improve my science communication and writing skills whenever I can, by attending workshops, practicing writing, attending journal clubs, editing papers, etc.

  • I attend department/institute events, like research days and special seminars from visiting scientists.

  • I go out into the community to do science outreach events with my research institute. We have visited high school biology classes and talked to them about the amazing immune defenders against disease.

  • I am on the student council, so I spend time every month attending meetings and advocating on behalf of grad students to the faculty and deans at the Cumming School of Medicine.

  • Oh, and we have beer and board games every Friday at 4:00. This is a great way to unwind at the end of a stressful week.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives you some idea of my life as a grad student.

If you have any questions for me, I’m happy to answer them. It’s difficult to peer into the academic bubble if you are looking from the outside, and nobody quite understands what our lives are like unless you’re in it knee deep in the mud with us. But as scientists we have resilience to trek through the mud and eventually come out with publications and dissertations. To my friends and colleagues in grad school, keep on trekking, you’ll get out alive and we’re all here to support you along the way.

-RMK