I want to be the next Professor X.
December 14, 2012 6:54 PM   Subscribe

I know I want to study genetics but I don't know where to go from there. What kind of things in genetics did Professor X and the Drs. Suresh on Heroes study? I want to study that.

Okay, well maybe I don't really want to study exactly that. They are fictional characters, after all. The only reason I mention them is because reading X-Men is one of the things that first got me interested in studying genetics. By "studying" I mean "get a PhD in".

I'm currently an undergraduate biology major with a concentration in genetics/subcellular biology, so I'm aware that thinking about getting a PhD may be thinking a bit too far in the future. I'm also definitely interested in going to medical school. In fact, I plan on applying for a Medical Scientist Training Program so I can get my medical degree and PhD in genetics at the same time.

Infectious disease genetics has a definite allure for me, but I'm not particularly interested in the major diseases being studied currently (HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis). Neuroscience/neurobiology also seems interesting, but I'm not really interested in studying the genetics of alcohol abuse or mental disorder. I'm not particularly interested in studying cancer, though there are some aspects of cancer research that I find interesting, specifically the cell proliferation and problems with gene expression regulation aspects. One mention of the word "telomerase" and my heart rate starts speeding up.

I'm about to start participating in a lab that centers around the genetic basis of plant diseases (specifically corn smut) but I'm really more interested in human genetics and I'm in the lab because I like the professor leading it, it'll introduce me to some of the technological things that go on with genetics research, and because the other professors with genetics labs didn't have any space left when I applied.

Basically, I have vague ideas about the areas of genetics I want to study, but nothing specific. I feel like I should be narrowing my scope so I know what sort of research positions to apply for and classes to take in the future.

So... what should I study?
posted by acthelight to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Step 1: Do really, really well in your classes now. My ex majored in genetics and has spent the following 2-3 years trying to get accepted to Med school. It's harder to get in than you can imagine.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:03 PM on December 14, 2012

You should keep taking undergrad classes in your major, get to know your fellow bio geeks, join student organizations that apply to people like you, find mentors among the grad students and professors you come into contact with, see what types of research opportunities exist at your school, etc etc etc. Keep learning more and narrowing down what really interests you. Then get a PhD in that.

You mention that you're interested in infection disease genetics, but that none of the "major diseases being studied currently" interest you. What diseases do interest you? Can you find people doing that type of research near you or with whom you have a plausible connection?

When I was an undergrad in anthropology, I discovered that I really loved linguistics. My school's linguistics program (which was completely within anthropology, no linguistics department) focused mostly on sociolinguistics, but I found that what I really wanted to get involved with was syntax. Luckily there was one syntactician at my school, and she acted as a bit of a mentor to expose me to syntax scholarship beyond what my undergrad department offered. Ultimately I did not go on to grad school in linguistics, but it was surprisingly easy to find ways of learning more about what interested me, even if my particular school didn't have the foremost experts in that subfield. So if no obvious opportunities are presenting themselves to you right now, that's what I'd suggest you do.
posted by Sara C. at 7:06 PM on December 14, 2012

What kind of things in genetics did Professor X and the Drs. Suresh on Heroes study?

Presumably human genetics.

I wouldn't worry about trying to narrow your scope right now. That's something that comes with time. Study hard, do well in your classes, and do some research. You'll know a little more about what sorts of things you're interested in before you start your PhD. If you're doing an MSTP you'll have even longer.

You can also read Nature Reviews Genetics. It has short and relatively easy-to-read reviews in genetics every month.
posted by grouse at 7:58 PM on December 14, 2012

Get as much lab experience as you possibly can. Genetics is almost all benchwork of one kind or another (or at least it involves a whole lot of it) so the more experience you have when applying to grad schools the better. Talk to the professor at your current lab about your interests. Be frank. It's OK to not know exactly what you want to do and it's OK at this stage to be working in a lab that's not doing exactly what you want -- but the professor you are working for (who is about to become your mentor) has a responsibility not just to get good work out of you but also to ensure that you grow as a scientist and have opportunities to pursue and develop your interests, even if that means you eventually leave his lab for another one that you are more well-suited to.

That happened to me! I worked for a year in a lab doing genetic research and protein expression, realized that I wanted to do conservation work and have a fieldwork component in my research, and expressed my feelings to my then-PI. She set me up with my current PI who is doing exactly the kind of work that I like, so much so that I am staying on there for a PhD program. There were no hard feelings -- I gave my old PI my best while I was there, and she ended up being one of my recommendations when I applied to the grad program. We're still on good terms and I consider her one of my allies in the department.

You'll also get a chance to see whether you actually enjoy the day-to-day grind of genetic research. Some people love it, some people can't stand it. Keep in mind that mostly what you will be doing is moving very, very small quantities of liquid around and then subjecting them to various processes, analyzing the results, and trying to figure out why the thing you just tried to do didn't work. Most of the time the things you will try to do will not work properly if at all, and most of the time you will feel kind of stupid and uncomfortable and like you don't know what you're doing. Always remember that this is normal, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Any PI would much rather have you pester them five times a day with basic questions than have you waste a week's time and $100 worth of reagents pushing forward on your own with something you don't understand. That feeling of stupidity and confusion and the frustration of having things repeatedly fail is somewhat relieved by the occasional joy of seeing something that reveals a tiny piece of knowledge that you know no other human has ever been privy to before. It is not for everyone however, and it will be good if you can figure out whether or not it is for you while you are still an undergrad.

Anyway, about genetics. Genetics is an extremely broad field and different subfields within it can give wildly different experiences. You say you're interested in disease genetics and medical research. That is still a very wide field and I would try to think about the kinds of questions that you want to ask and the tools that you want to use for trying to answer them. What is it about the genetics of infectious diseases that really turns your crank and makes your mental wheels start to spin? What will motivate you to spend the rest of your working life toiling long and often lonely hours, for what will probably be not-great pay, striving every day to understand something that is so esoteric that you may only be able to have a fulfilling conversation about it with perhaps five other people in the world? You need to have a serious motivation to do research, and it's OK if you haven't quite found it yet (and it's OK to have a few false starts at your stage) but you should be searching for it and thinking about it. You should find someone you can talk to about this, ideally someone who is a senior scientist of some kind (like a professor) rather than another undergrad. Someone who can take your half-articulated thoughts and tell you what it is that you are trying to talk about.

You should also think about the way in which you want to answer those questions. What do you like to do in research? Do you like programming? Do you find statistics exciting? Do you like moving tiny bits of liquid around and smearing cells onto plates? Do you want to work in the world of theory and try to answer basic questions, or do you want to do more applied research, perhaps even experimental medicine? Do you want a teaching component in your career, or do you want to do pure research? Do you think you'd prefer to work in academia, government, or industry? Grouse's recommendation that you check out some Nature Reviews is a good one, because it will give you a sense of the kinds of questions that geneticists are asking and you will start to get a sense of which questions are interesting to you and which techniques strike you as something you might want to actually spend decades executing and practicing and refining.

Those are my thoughts on the matter, and they're pretty wordy but I feel like I was you a couple of years ago so I feel like I have some things to say. I got out of genetics so I can't speak a lot to where you should go in that particular field (even something like "human genetics" doesn't really constitute a research proposal, you are going to have to eventually settle on something much more specific than that) but I feel like I have accumulated a few bits of hard-won wisdom in terms of figuring out what the hell I want to do with my life so if you want to memail me then feel free, I'd be happy to talk.
posted by Scientist at 8:34 PM on December 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'll second Scientist - I'm glad you've already gotten yourself into a lab. You will have no idea if you really want to do a PhD unless you spend some serious time in the laboratory. Don't discount just going to medical school if you find you hate bench work- in the US an MD can sometimes substitute for a PhD if you want to go back to certain kinds of basic research.

If you want to go into genetics, the #1 lab skill you will need to have is cloning/PCR. It's kind of fun - you can take a gene, change the sequence as much as you like, pop it back in, and see what your changes did. Or you can scan for changes that have already happened. It can also be pretty frustrating when it doesn't work - but that's another story! It's also easy to work around an undergrad's schedule, since many of the steps are either in a PCR machine, or can be kept in the fridge indefinitely.

You should absolutely discuss your research interests with your professor - they will be well connected at your university and will be able to recommend other professors to work with that will be a good fit for your interests and (more importantly at this stage) a good mentor to undergrads.

Make sure that your interests may be unrealistic or too specific. You find many things boring (it's okay, I do too!) but especially when applying to grad school, make sure you either get matched with an interesting faculty member immediately, or that you would be happy with multiple faculty members that are accepting students.

If you seriously want to do a PhD, you have to be okay with spending 5 years showing that knocking out telomerase regulator #128931293 in nematodes causes an obscure nematode cancer that will never be directly relevant to humans. If that sounds horrifically boring, consider the options if you just go to medical school.
posted by fermezporte at 4:33 AM on December 15, 2012

I'll address the MD part of your question. I work with two MD-PhD students at a university top-ten med school. The thing I hear most from them? If you don't want to work directly with patients in a clinical setting, do NOT get an MD. Stick with a PhD if you only care about research, which is what I pick up from your question. You can easily pick up the biology and anatomy that you'd learn in med school as part of your PhD without doing all the clinical training.

MD-PhD programs are EXTREMELY competitive, because you essentially get your MD paid for. Med school is also very very difficult by itself, then you have boards, internship, residency...

As for PhD programs being boring... Well, yes, to everyone ELSE in the world. To you, that one gene or one strain of mouse is the most fascinating thing in the world. It becomes that way for two reasons: you pick a topic and advisor you're interested in, and you become more interested as you go. (If not, you switch projects/advisors.)
posted by supercres at 4:53 AM on December 15, 2012

Also, take a class in medical/research ethics while you're an undergrad if you can swing it. It might, uh... refine your goals for the future a little. Not saying that to be snarky; you should just realize what's realistic before going into either research or medicine.

You never hear IRBs or the Helsinki Declaration mentioned in X-Men...
posted by supercres at 4:57 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The good doctor works at the National Human Genome Research Institute, and although he spends more time at his desk than on the bench nowadays, he's always happy to do informational interviews about what he and his colleagues do. MeMail me if you want to connect with him.
posted by evoque at 9:47 AM on December 15, 2012

If you seriously want to do a PhD, you have to be okay with spending 5 years showing that knocking out telomerase regulator #128931293 in nematodes causes an obscure nematode cancer that will never be directly relevant to humans.

You do get to pick your own project. If you don't want to do research in worms, you don't have to. Worms can be a lot easier to work with than humans, though.
posted by grouse at 10:15 AM on December 15, 2012

Yeah, worms are easier to work with than Plasmodium too.

Also, my understsnding is that that, these days, increacing specialization and the accumulation of sequence data means that bench-work isn't an essential step on in a career the way it once was. If that appeals: then get comfortabe with programming (python is pretty popular in bioinformatics), get some heavy stats, and consider getting deeper into computer science.
posted by Good Brain at 8:15 PM on December 15, 2012

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