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This past weekend was the annual IU MD/PhD Program’s retreat. This is one of my favourite programmatic events. I cherish the social opportunities of meeting the program’s new students and catching up with my fellow classmates. I equally appreciate the chance to discuss my research; to exchange experimental ideas with my colleagues. I always learn a great deal during the retreat.

In addition to the students’ discussions, we also had formal presentations by established physician-scientists. These presenters provide their pearls on how to thrive in my desired career.

One pearl stood out for me this year. The advice was to outsource chores that wear you down. For instance:  laundry. If you spend the week dreading the day you need to wash your clothes then why not pay someone to do it for you? Instead, use the time for something pleasurable: like spending time with family.

This kind of safe advice is invaluable. It demonstrates that physician-scientists are human. They tire; they get annoyed; their priorities are not limited to their labs and hospitals. The mantra is worth repeating:


I continued to dwell on this advice after the presentation. I wondered: why wait to become a physician-scientist? How can I outsource my most dreaded tasks now as a grad student?

Consider all the skills that a biomedical student may have: biochemistry, signaling, cell culture, histology, tissue specialities (brain, liver, kidney,…), animal husbandry, immunology, engineering… the list is long. Too long for me to have expertise in all these tasks. For instance: I’m fond of flow cytometry but have a phobia of western blots. I would gladly exchange 2 hours by the flow machine for 1 hour by the gel box. How do I make the trade?

The ideal scenario is to find my complement: the signaling expert with an aversion to flow. I run both of our flow experiments and she runs both of our western blots. We each capitalize on our expertise and get the data we need.

But it is rare to find someone whose needs-expertise are an exact match to your own. Especially when looking outside one’s own lab. I cannot rely on the bartering of skills to advance my project.

Let’s say I do find a student with the expertise I need. What would make it worthwhile for her to help me?  What currency do I have to exchange for her abilities? A few thoughts:

  1. She’ll do it from the goodness of her heart. This is not so unrealistic: my colleagues really do tend to be generous. However, their time is strained and their own experiments take priority over my own.
  2. The pleasure of teaching/sharing. Again, more common than one may imagine. This is my own most common reason for helping my peers. But the requirements of the PhD bind my hands: my own work must take priority. After all, I cannot graduate on the basis of your publications.
  3. Formal recognition. If I generate data that you use in a publications than I may hope to be an author on that publication. However, a high proportion of data is never published. Furthermore, if I teach you how to perform the experiment – which will take more time than running it myself – then I lack the basis to be an author on your publication. More work: less reward.
  4. Formal payment. I doubt IUSM would permit me to hire a technician to run my western blots – even if I did have the means. And paying colleagues to perform my experiments would be an ethical quagmire. Let’s not go there.
  5. …What currencies have I missed? Let me know your thoughts!

Mentors and PIs have the hard currency to forge collaborations. Their PubMed history defies their reputation and conveys the sincerity of their co-authorship promises. Grad students do not have such luxury. For the time being I will rely on my mentors to help orchestrate collaborations that are fruitful: some will benefit my own project and some will benefit my colleague’s. And I will go ahead and run my own western blots. But I know that it is okay to ask for help; that I should not and will not be ashamed to seek help for those experiments where I lack expertise.

And for what it’s worth: if you, dear reader, ever need help with a flow cytometry experiment: do let me know.


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.