What are we? Where are we going?
These questions, lifted from the title of a Gauguin painting, have been asked by generations of graduate students in the life sciences. As a new graduate student, one of your first steps towards answering them is deciding upon your choice of dissertation research. Selecting a laboratory and doctoral advisor is a major career-shaping decision. This may prove to be a difficult choice, since you might not yet know exactly what you want to do. Within the medical school and college you can pick from numerous and diverse research programs, and your first task as a graduate student is to identify which group is best able to satisfy and develop your scientific interests. Each research laboratory offers something different and has its particular strengths, and it's up to you to investigate and ask questions until you have sufficient information to make an informed decision.
Simply put, your goal in a Ph.D. program is to become an expert in something. That something is a subfield within the biological or chemical sciences, over which during the next 4-5 years you are expected to develop a high level of mastery. The nature of a doctoral program is to probe deeply into important and unresolved problems, an approach which appropriately prevents a student from becoming an unfocused dilettante or jack (or jill)-of-all-trades. The danger, however, is that you may emerge from your graduate experience with a relatively narrow research perspective (and laboratory skills to match). This is not acceptable for many scientific vocations, especially if you intend to pursue a career in biomedical or pharmaceutical research. A competitive advantage is generally held by an expert in one field who can communicate effectively with experts in other fields—chemists who can talk to biologists who can talk to bioinformaticians, and so forth—in order to solve problems which span disciplines.
A multidisciplinary & collaborative environment
The Spaller group is multidisciplinary; that is, we use a range of experimental methods from different disciplines in our research (which is further described on the Research page). Members of our lab generally follow one of two major tracks, although certain projects allow for greater degrees of overlap. (I) Biochemistry projects provide experience in a wide variety of biochemical and molecular biological techniques, including cell culturing, protein expression and purification, recombinant DNA and cloning, PCR, protein-ligand assays, and titration calorimetry, to name a few. (II) Chemical synthesis and bioorganic chemistry research in the group focuses on the design, multistep synthesis, and isolation of various peptide, peptidomimetic, and heterocyclic organic compounds, using modern approaches for compound preparation and chromatographic purification, as well as spectroscopic analysis and characterization.
Over the course of a graduate career, individuals will not only become expert in their primary field, but have the opportunity to cross over into other disciplinary areas if they so choose. Proximity with coworkers involved in different projects and methodologies provides a beneficial intellectual cross-fertilization effect on everyone in the lab. Several of the lab projects are of sufficient breadth that they may require a team effort to tackle both the chemical and biological aspects, allowing for direct exposure to a distinct but complementary set of ideas and techniques. This collaborative spirit extends beyond the confines of the lab, and into those of other research groups at Dartmouth and external institutions. The Spaller lab maintains scientific partnerships with several other laboratories that specialize in various biological and biophysical methods, which again broadens the research experience of group members.
The Great Beyond — After graduate school
It may seem premature to think about post-graduation when you've barely begun your doctoral program! The fact is, though, that what you chose to do in the laboratory will orient your future path in certain directions. Most graduates who plan to compete for the better jobs—either in Industry or in Academics—will be required to follow up their Ph.D. with postdoctoral research. A postdoctoral position is a transition step between school and your first "real" job, where you invest two or more years with a faculty member at a different institution to gain additional research experience. This is not for a degree, and you generally do not teach or take coursework—it's just pure research. Whether you choose a path that leads you to a postdoctoral position or directly into the job market, your prospective employers will evaluate you on your specialized skills as well as your broader knowledge. And the talented researcher with the ability to think and speak fluently across disciplines will generally be the most desirable employee of all.
In many ways, graduate school is both the first and last chance to deeply immerse yourself into completely new science. You'll have the opportunity of entering into just about any field as an unapologetic beginner, and learn a body of scientific knowledge from the ground up. After your Ph.D., this is a luxury you'll rarely be afforded. Future employers—from postdoctoral advisor and beyond—will hire you because you already possess a certain skill set that they have need of. But the more you know, the more options you'll have, and your opportunities will be correspondingly wider. You'll have to work hard to develop your core skill set during the course of your doctoral program, but if you work hard and smart, and select the appropriate research projects, you can absorb a healthy breadth of knowledge and skills that make you a formidable researcher and highly desirable candidate for your next supervisor. And a final closing thought: choose a graduate research experience that appeals to your heart as well as your head. Life is too short and science too difficult to pursue a course of research just because someone else thinks it's important.
For more information about graduate research in our group, stop by Dr. Spaller's office or contact him by e-mail to arrange for an appointment.