At the end of each school year my extended family asks me what I have planned for the summer. The question is a ritual that began kindergarten. Alternatively, the question may be phrased: ‘how will you loaf away your 2-3 months of vacation?’ Sadly, the question is somewhat anachronistic. As a medical student and graduate student I no longer have lengthy breaks over the summer. Alas, the mice will not experiment on themselves in my absence.
Summer remains, however, an exciting time for me. It heralds a group students who join the lab as part of programs such as the Student Research Program in Academic Medicine (SRPinAM). Some join for a fixed-duration project while others arrive with the intention of ‘feeling out’ the lab to decide if they wish to pursue a Masters of PhD in that setting. The students’ prior research experience varies from zip-nada to multi-year undergrad projects. In all cases, however, the summer students need considerable mentorship and guidance. My mentors – Merv Yoder and Rebecca Chan – had 8 summer students between the two of them. Compare that to 10 (total) permanent lab members; nearly a 1:1 ratio! If each rotating student requires a mentor, does that mean that only 2 people were working on their own projects at any given time!?
At the beginning of the summer, my mentor met with each rotating student and told them a story. The story was about science; it outlined the history of an idea, the course it took through progressive experiments, and the potential it has for clinical application. In Merv’s lab the story was frequently about ECFCs: endothelial colony forming cells that circulate in blood, produce large numbers of endothelial cells, and have shown promise in clinical trials in treating disorders such as age-related macular degeneration. Each story always ends, however, with a problem/question: ECFCs struggle to survive during transplant. How can we promote their survival?
The question marks the end of the story but the beginning of the summer student’s project. It prompts them to go back and review the literature. They re-read the story the mentor told and fill-in gaps. They look to see if a solution to the problem (eg: survival) has been proposed and determine what remains unknown. This is a great expectation for a rotating student, yet it is strikingly effective. Each of Merv’s students searched the literature and became excited by what they found. There is no substitute for that passion and without it there is very little that can be achieved over the short summer months. But once a spark is found the student has the motivation to begin their work and seek to answer the question.
Then – finally – the other members of the lab can help out. We can provide advice on how to plan and carry out experiments. We can refine hypotheses and suggest alternate methods to approach a problem. But the benefit is not a one way street. The summer student will ask probing questions about their field: which pathways mediate ECFC apoptosis and survival? These questions – no platitude intended – truly do keep mentors on their toes. After all, “if you cannot explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough”. The same holds true for techniques. I use flow cytometry almost every day, yet an innocent question can reveal how well I understand the mechanics behind the tool.
My days of lengthy summer vacations are long gone – and good riddance! They have been replaced by the pleasurable opportunity to mentor other trainees and thereby test my own knowledge and teaching ability. I am very proud of what each of the summer students have accomplished. Each probed their question with vigor. Many won awards for their project presentations. Others have decided to continue in the lab for their thesis work. Yes, the summer influx does mean more competition for scarce reagents and a greater demand for my time in terms of mentorship. But the benefit I receive from reinforcing my knowledge and sharing my passion for science makes the investment more than worthwhile.
This year’s summer ‘vacation’ has come to an end. The students have returned to their regular classes. But I am glad to know that some will be back later in the year while others will join next summer and will hear another story, ask another question, and will further test my abilities and knowledge. I’ll be looking forward to it!