ReExamining Lab Rotations – What should this graduate training experience be about?

One of the first steps in graduate school is to figure out what you want to study and in which lab you want to do your research. Lab rotations typically involve working in ~3 different labs for 1-2 months each. The experience provides students an opportunity to shop around a little and the PIs get some insight into which students might fit best in with their group. Fundamentally, this is a reasonable idea. In practice however, it is a bit of muddled scramble. In my time as a postdoc at Harvard, I saw lots and lots of rotation students come through. The time they spend in the lab is short and they are not yet trained, so their projects are simple and they really cannot see anything through to completion. The simple projects they tend to get are sometimes tedious and repetitive. While this is the nature of experimentation, as a first experience, it fails to engage the imagination. What can be done to improve the rotation experience?


One perspective is to accept that short rotations generally fail to generate useful data and let go of the idea of trying to get a big result or start a thesis project. Instead, the PI might select a few specific observational experiments that have no point other than to engage the imagination and generate questions and ideas.


In the Gregg Lab, for example, a rotation experience would ideally expose an individual to major questions and ideas related to: (1) gene expression and bioinformatics, (2) feeding circuits, (3) early life programming, and, (4) feeding and foraging behaviors. For a four week rotation, each week would be committed to one of these four topics. A student would carry out an experiment that is short term and very likely to work, and most importantly, leads to lots of opportunity for observation and thought. To guide the thinking and discovery process, I have taken some ideas from Tim Hurson’s useful book, ‘Think Better’, and generated a simple outline that provides rotation students with a framework to conceptually explore the potential of their data (see Project Planner). The key is to push yourself to think deeply about what you are observing. The first round of ideas that come to you will likely be ones that others have considered, but by the time you push yourself to a third round of ideas you may be starting to come up with original material.


Consider that a simple immunohistochemical stain of neural circuitry in the brain can illuminate a million questions and ideas. A simple study of animal behavior can force one to reflect on all of the problems the brain must solve to carry out a task and wonder what behaviors the animal is capable of. A brief bioinformatic study of gene interactions and expression patterns raises numerous questions about how everything works. The point of the rotation experience is to engage your mind and find a topic that is exciting and important to you and demonstrate to the PI that you are an independent thinker!

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