Dr. Peter P. Sayeski
UF Department of Physiology and Functional Genomics
2011-2012 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Accepting a faculty position at an academic institution like the University of Florida comes with certain expectations. For a biomedical researcher such as myself, these expectations include securing extramural research funding, teaching graduate and professional students in the classroom, helping better the University by serving on various academic committees, and training Ph.D. biomedical research graduate students in the laboratory. Whether it’s fair or not, one’s success in academic research is generally measured by research dollars and publications. However, that does not mean that these are necessarily the most gratifying aspect of an academic position. For me, the most gratifying part of my job is by far the training of doctoral students in biomedical research. There are two reasons for this; first, it is the most challenging aspect of my job. Second, I believe that properly trained graduate students will afford one a legacy that will last well beyond that of grant dollars and manuscripts. In my eleven years here at the University of Florida, I have mentored nine Ph.D. graduate students. Additionally, I have served on the dissertation advisory committees of about thirty other Ph.D. students. What makes graduate research training so rewarding is that I have a discernible hand in the transformation of someone from naive graduate student to young scientist.
When I ask graduate students why they might want to be in my lab, the answer is something along the lines of “I want to learn molecular biology.” I use this as an opportunity to explain to them that graduate school is really much more than that. That while it is certainly important to learn laboratory techniques per se, they must understand that they are being trained as scientists and not research technicians. I go on to explain that a graduate student is like a “multi-faceted diamond” and during their graduate education, my job is to help develop, strengthen and polish each facet of that diamond. The goal is that when they leave my lab with their Ph.D. degree in hand, they will be good young scientists. In my mind, the different facets of graduate education include learning how to develop a hypothesis, learning how to design feasible experiments that can test that hypothesis, performing those experiments with appropriate controls, being able to critically analyze the data so that one can determine whether the hypothesis is valid, being able to convey those results in a written manner, being able to convey those results in an oral presentation, being able to answer direct questions about one’s work, keeping good records, being an efficient manager of time, learning how to work and collaborate with others in support of a larger research question, and learning how to teach others about research.
My philosophy has always been that each student is unique in that each will inherently be more comfortable with one facet of graduate education than another. For example, one student may thrive at the laboratory bench, but is terrified to stand in front of others, and vice versa. My approach in training students is to first identify their strengths and weaknesses and then work with each student so that they play to their strengths, but also improve their weaknesses. What makes this all the more challenging and of course rewarding, is that students are so very different.
I work with graduate students both in groups and one-on-one. For example, all of my students present their work in our formal lab meeting about once a month. This forces them to organize their most recent work and present it to the lab. As a group, we hash out the results and what they mean. We discuss what experiments should be performed next and why. The point of this exercise is to reinforce the importance of the scientific method; hypothesize, test, analyze and re-hypothesize. Another exercise that we do at lab meeting is to present a list of quarterly goals. Every three months, I have everyone in the lab, including myself, write out and present before the lab what they would like to accomplish in the ensuing three month period. This forces everyone to organize and prioritize their work. My students might write things like “finish remaining three experiments for manuscript, write manuscript, prepare poster for meeting, have committee meeting, etc.” After the goals are presented to the lab, I collect the files. Three months later, we go back through everyone’s goals to see what was accomplished, what was not, and why. The over-arching purpose of this exercise is to impress upon my students that every few months it is important to take stock of what we have done and what we would like to do next. Also, that goals are important and we are all accountable to one another for those stated goals. I also meet with my students individually to discuss their work. These conversations may pertain to current experiments, the outline of a manuscript or an oral presentation. During these meetings, I suggest ceratin changes that I think will improve their work product, but more importantly, I tell them why. During these individual meetings, we also discuss the “multi-faceted diamond” analogy as it relates to which aspects of their graduate education are well developed, which still need improvement, and what can we do to improve the weaknesses. After 3-4 years, it is incredibly gratifying to observe the transformation from graduate student to skilled young scientist.
Early in my Assistant Professorship, I was the one to attend meetings and present lab data. In doing so, I occasionally won some Young Investigator Award or Travel Award. However, about three years into my faculty appointment, a metamorphosis occurred where my trainees were presenting all the lab data and I instead sat in the back of the room like a proud parent. My graduate students have done very well and their work has been recognized here at UF, nationally, and internationally. For example, they have won multiple UF Medical Guild Research Awards, a UF Best Basic Science Poster Award, multiple Research Fellowships from the American Heart Association, Travel Awards to attend international meetings in France and Germany, national scholarship awards and even a UF Exemplary Teacher Award. Watching my students win their own awards has given me a greater sense of satisfaction than any award I could win on my own. Also, after leaving my lab, my students have gone on to Post Doctoral Fellowships at a number of outstanding institutions including Emory University, the National Institutes of Health, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,UCSD, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Iowa.
Training graduate students however, is not without peril. Every gray hair on my head can be traced to some episode where one of my students made some blunder in the lab. But mistakes are a part of learning. And I believe that the training my students received (as well as the mistakes they made) have forged them into beautiful diamonds. And as the saying goes, a diamond will last forever.