Lacin Yapindi, a third year Ph.D. student, studies Molecular and Cell Biology at Southern Methodist University. Before coming to SMU, she attended Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. She is currently under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Harrod and working on projects involving virus-induced cancers.
Here is what Ms. Yapindi had to say about her experience with lab work as a Ph.D. student and her decision to study at SMU.
Beginning A Ph.D. Program
Starting a Ph.D. program is very exciting, but can also be very overwhelming. You are confronted with many questions one after another, including: What is it going to be like? What research should I be working on? Which lab should I join?
I started as a Ph.D. student in the Biology department 2.5 years ago with the same questions on my mind. However, I was certain of one thing. I wanted to study cancer. I find it very interesting because there are so many different types of cancers, and each has its own mechanism.
It is always better to start out knowing what particular area of study you would like to pursue, but it is not absolutely necessary. In our department you are given an opportunity to rotate through two different labs in your first semester. These rotations allow you to learn about the research in various labs, and help you to discover your passion.
During your rotations you also get to know the professors and people you will be working with. Picking the right lab and professor is a crucial step in getting a doctorate. Before making the final decision there are several important questions you should consider, such as: What grant does the lab have? What projects are available to students? How much time is needed in the lab?
Choosing a Lab and a Research Project
After I considered all these factors, I decided to join Dr. Robert Harrod’s lab. Our research focuses on virus-induced cancers. Like most other graduate students in our department, I was given two different projects to work on. My projects study the mechanisms by which oncogenic viruses human T-cell Leukemia/Lymphoma Virus Type 1 (HTLV-1) and high-risk type human papillomaviruses (HPVs) cause cancer.
Having different projects is important, as nothing is guaranteed in the science world. This helps you move forward even if one project stalls. Neither of my projects were strictly shaped from the very beginning. Projects begin with ideas, and each result leads to another idea. During your Ph.D., your project will be shaped by discussing your ideas your Principal Investigator (PI). Reading literature and staying current with research going on in the field helps you contribute to the direction of your project.
You might be thinking, “Two projects! Wow, isn’t that too hard to manage?” Not really! In Biology, most of the experiments we do (like Western Blot, PCR, immunostaining, etc...) have long incubation times. Although I spend around 8 hours in the lab every day, I use that time wisely to work on multiple experiments. However, it is important to note that managing time efficiently is a skill that takes time to learn, and practice to master.
In the first two years of a Ph.D. program you can expect to take 2-3 courses each semester. This will improve your knowledge of your discipline, and help you with research and time management skills. Once you pass the Ph.D. qualifying exam at the end of your second year, you will only need to focus on one thing: research. This will make your life much simpler.
Getting the Most Out of Your Ph.D.
So, don’t worry — you won’t be stuck in the lab throughout your whole Ph.D. program! I use my lunch and tea breaks to catch up with friends. Conferences are another chance to network and interact outside of the lab. At these you can learn about the research of colleagues in your field and present your own work. Conferences are great opportunities to put your data together to tell a story, and to introduce your university, lab, and research to other people.
Recently, I had my first conference experience. I was selected to give a talk on high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) induced tumorigenesis at the 2018 Texas Branch American Society for Microbiology (ASM) meeting, at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. I received the second place award for the best oral presentation, which was a great honor and motivation for me. Also, having people appreciate and show interest in my work was very encouraging.
Earning a Ph.D. is a long road. Sometimes, a bit of encouragement is needed to motivate you to work harder. Having a PI who encourages you along the way is very important, and I feel very lucky to have that. My experience in my Ph.D. program over the last 2.5 years has been exciting and productive. I am looking forward to learning more, sharing my research, and continuing to contribute to cancer research.
Continue reading about biology research like Ms. Yapindi's here at SMU by checking out the Biology department's website.