In the air this year

I haven’t had time to update my lab web page in a while. This isn’t because it has been boring. Quite the opposite.

In the media, I contributed to the debate on whether SARS-CoV-2 vaccine boosters would be helpful, spent time talking about misinformation, and tried to communicate scientific uncertainty. I also had the Kafka-esque experience of being the source for made up misinformation that went viral on Facebook and not being able to get it removed. More positively, I made it to the reddit front page talking about how to read scientific articles.

In the lab, we’ve had an exciting year. With Shelby’s lab, we’ve been very involved in environmental detection of respiratory viruses. We deployed air samplers in Madison, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee to look for SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses in the air. It worked really well and we are now expanding this effort to include sequencing of viruses from air. We’ve also generated thousands of SARS-CoV-2 sequences from patient samples in Wisconsin. These activities represent a major pivot to public health research in our lab, which is now co-existing with the lab’s basic research agenda.

In basic research, our Zika virus research program has made progress towards a consistent phenotype for testing interventions like vaccines and therapeutics in pregnant macaques. And we are making excellent progress towards unraveling the secrets of complex immune loci in macaques by generating high quality whole genome sequences from Mauritian macaques with restricted genetic diversity.

I’m really proud of how the lab has weathered the changing nature of research during the pandemic. If you are reading this because you are thinking of applying for a position in the lab, know that we are proudly a hybrid work environment. Lab work can only be done in the lab, of course, and training in lab protocols needs to be done in person. Office work, lab documentation, and data analysis can be done from the lab if that is where people work most efficiently, or remotely if that is more efficient. My lab is family-friendly and offers unusual flexibility in exchange for high levels of productivity from scientists who can work effectively with a high degree of independence.

For potential graduate students who are considering a rotation in the fall of 2022, I want to be forthright about my expectations. My lab is a great place for students whose expectations match mine, which are:

• Progress in the lab is a function of how much time you spend doing experiments. The more time you are working on your project, learning about its background, learning new concepts in the lab, etc. the more quickly your project will take flight and the more successful it will be. Since the fundamental “output” of a PhD is the thesis that describes the research that you do in the lab (not your classes or committees you serve on), my expectation is that PhD students before their prelim spend at least 30 hours working in the lab (or working from home purposefully on lab work), regardless of the other obligations you have in grad school. Realistically, this probably means ~50 hours between time spend in the lab and all the other stuff your program requires you to do — but I mainly care about the 30 hours you spend in the lab. How much of the other stuff you do or don’t do is up to you. If you choose to spend 20 hours a week on classes, for example, that will be a pretty heavy workload. After your prelim, when you can spend most of your time in the lab, 40-50 hours a week in the lab is customary.

• The lab has a hybrid configuration. At any given time, only about 50% of my lab will physically be at AVRL. The rest will be working remotely, in touch through workplace communication tools like Slack and Basecamp. After I finish my recovery, I’ll probably be at AVRL about 25% of the time. Most communication with me as PI will be over Zoom and the workplace communication tools. The guardrails to make sure that you don’t get lost include writing two weekly summaries. Each Monday, you write a plan for the week highlighting the key goals you want to achieve during the week. On Friday, you write another that summarizes progress towards these goals. Additionally, I meet with grad students every six weeks. During these meetings, each student shows their progress over the previous six week period and presents a detailed plan for the next six weeks that we discuss collaboratively and refine. This is essentially the roadmap to what you will be working on for the next six week period. These mechanisms of oversight and feedback are effective for students who value having independence and autonomy. Unlike some labs, you can’t reliably expect that there is going to be another specific student or scientist sitting at their desk at 10AM on any given Tuesday. Conversely, this same flexibility is afforded to you and other students. I’m not going to check your hours. I rely on students to self-schedule their time.

• The presentation standards for the lab are very high. Any work that you write for the lab will be read and critiqued seriously, but not personally. The same is true for presentations. I expect that presentations will be dress rehearsed with the lab with sufficient advance time for feedback from lab members to be incorporated into the final product. In my opinion, there is very little to be gained by simply smiling and telling people they are doing a good job. If you do a good job, I’ll absolutely tell you so. If your work needs improvement, I’ll tell you that candidly too. Being able to accept this sort of constructive criticism is a key trait for successful grad students in the lab.

This training philosophy has been rewarding for my students. Mitch just received a T32 training grant and gave presentations at CDC and NIH seminars, while Trent has had his work featured by Oxford Nanopore.