Advice for the New Molecular Biologist

All, last week our friends at GE Healthcare put out a press release reminding all Life Scientists of the deadline for the 2011 GE and Science Prize for Young Life Scientists.  This award was established in 1995 to recognize outstanding young scientists who have completed their PhDs in the area of molecular biology during the past year.  This year’s deadline is 1st August 2011, so please get your submissions in!  The grand prize winner will have his or her essay published in Science, receive a prize of U.S. $25,000, and be invited to an award ceremony in December 2011 in Stockholm, Sweden to receive their prize and to meet with the current Nobel laureates.

One of the reasons that GE Healthcare sponsors this award is the belief that support for young scientists at the start of their careers is critical to the future of continued life sciences research.  I also believe this and wanted to take some time to write a blog sharing my personal advice for those starting their careers in molecular biology and life sciences.  Throughout my career I have accomplished much that I am very proud of.

I received his B.S. in microbiology from Purdue University and my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Rochester. For the past 14 years I have been working at GE Global Research, with 18 peer reviewed publications and 13 issues patents.  During my academic career, I have been involved in a few notable discoveries, such as the discovery of DNA Polymerase Zeta, the discovery of the very first Y-family DNA polymerase, and discovery of the REV1 gene product called deoxycytidyl transferase.  While working at GE, I have contributed to the development of a number of new molecular biology tools including the DYEnamic ET dye-terminator kit, the TempliPhi DNA amplification kit and the GenomiPhi whole genome amplification kit.  It has been a long journey to get to where I am today and I love working with the younger generations of scientists and engineers.

Below, are a list of tips and some advice I have put together and learned after many years in the labs.  I hope that it helps all of the young scientists out there!

In the lab-

1)     Setting up experiments: The devil is in the details. Pay attention to every detail of your experiment, determine what matters and what doesn’t, then make sure you take care of what matters. Never put into your notebook: “buffer A” without understanding what “buffer A” is, or at least what it probably is, and what it is supposed to do.

2)     Scope your experiments: As we say at GE, don’t try to boil the ocean. Ask one or two questions per experiment, and try to plan a series of experiments that each build off the last.

3)     What is your control? What is your other control? Novice scientists many times forget that in order to interpret an experiment, you need to have evidence that it could have worked if your tests were correct and that it would not have given the result if your tests didn’t work.

4)     For reactions, check for linear kinetics and linear response to enzyme amount. When you do not get double the product with double the time, or double the product with double the enzyme, something is either wrong or not happening the way you intended. I have made two huge discoveries in my career because non-linear reactions told me something was awry.

5)     You are not the only smart person in the world. I have a sign on my wall: “Frequently a month in the lab can substitute for one day in the library”. Do some searching through the literature before you conclude that you need to test something in the lab.

Out of the lab-

6)     Take time to focus on the big picture. Scientists so often forget that their terribly fascinating research into the exciting details of their chosen field of study actually has a place in the grand scheme of things. They spend hours every day pouring over minuscule aspects of their work, but forget that in order for their work to really make a difference its significance in the rest of science needs to be established. This leads to the next point-

7)     Always be prepared with the “elevator speech”. Have a 30 second explanation of what you research, and why it matters. If you get on the elevator with someone really important (that has the ability to make funds appear for your project) that has little to no experience with science, you have to be able to leave that person with the understanding that what you are doing is worthwhile. This speech comes in handy with Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles, someone behind you at the supermarket, CEO’s, and anyone you meet that might like to know that you are doing something important.

8)     Always remember that science is totally cool. Take some time to think about some of the things that you have learned or discovered, and how interesting it actually is. After spending years researching something, it is really easy to become complacent and unappreciative. Take a step back and really think about it. What you are doing and learning is probably pretty impressive. Your enthusiasm for your work and science can be contagious.

My science journey is far from over.  Currently I am working on numerous projects, including the development of an isothermal PCR method for point-of-care DNA testing, a novel method for amplification of fragmented RNA for expression analysis, a 3rd generation single molecule DNA sequencing method, a method for whole genome amplification from single cells as part of the Human Microbiome Project, and a new method for retrieval of DNA from formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissues.  Stay tuned to the blog to learn more!

1 Comment

  1. Farhan Ahmad

    Dear Dr. Nelson.

    Its really nice to read your advice. I am a PhD candidate at Michigan State University.

    I have extensive research experience in the diagnosis of infectious agents by using in vitro diagnostic assays, such as PCR and loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) reactions. Further, I translated these assays on microfluidic chips and coupled them to a low-cost real-time fluorescence imaging systems that I developed. My system allows the detection of DNA amplification that is 5-fold faster and 100-fold cheaper than commercial real-time PCR instruments. In addition, I have developed novel protocols to amplify DNA directly from bacterial cells that eliminates the need for upstream sample processing, and for testing antibiotic susceptibility that reduces the detection time from 24 hours to 3 hours. I have consistently received high grades in laboratory-based and theoretical courses in microbiology, molecular biology, and microbial genetics, which has provided me with a solid base in the principles as well as standard laboratory techniques and analytical methods, such as bacterial isolation, DNA extraction and analysis among others.

    I hope to get an opportunity to work with you in future.


    Farhan Ahmad