Nancy Wilson with OSG School, associated with the NIH African Centers of Excellence in Bioinformatics in Mali and Uganda

Nancy Wilson with OSG School students who are associated with the NIH African Centers of Excellence in Bioinformatics in both Mali and Uganda


The lab has a variety of roles for highly motivated and hard working scientists at all career stages. Staff and students who are willing to strive for excellence in viral pathogenesis, genomics, and bioinformatics research have thrived in my lab. Everyone who works in the lab is expected to work well both independently and as a member of collaborative teams. Most of our lab’s communication is asynchronous and written, which means that the ability to set priorities, learn independently, write expressively and extensively, and execute without strict oversight is important.

I am a firm believer that the most effective scientists in my group are happy and motivated to work without my prodding. To this end, I embrace flexibility in how, when, and where staff work, predicated on compliance with UW-Madison policies and specific job tasks. For example, you can’t set up cell culture or sequence viruses from your garage. Everyone’s job, however, includes some measure of independent learning, documentation, analysis, writing, and communication in addition to setting up experiments – this can be done flexibly. And this includes me. As the lab head, I travel and work remotely extensively. To the extent possible, I extend this flexibility to all scientists in my group.

Expectations are high, however. Fewer than 10% of NIH grants are funded, and turning ideas into experiments, then projects, then new knowledge is hard. It is demanding. The lab has been successful for 15 years by competing at a high level with a team of scientists who are committed to solving hard problems with an intensity that matches the nature of the challenge. There are other labs on campus and other jobs that are well suited for those who prefer a laid back pace. I unapologetically challenge my scientists to perform world-class research, which demands an unusual intensity and commitment to excellence.

Diversity is a source of strength, creativity, and innovation for UW-Madison. We value the contributions of each person and respect the profound ways their identity, culture, background, experience, status, abilities, and opinion enrich the university community. We promote excellence through diversity.


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Scientists are PhD-level researchers whose responsibilities include supervising junior scientists, participating in lab management, overseeing entire projects, and performing experiments. Scientists are also involved in grant preparation and management. These are career-track positions at UW-Madison that include full benefits.

Research technicians

Research technicians are BS- or MS-level researchers who design, perform, and analyze experimental data. The lab has an excellent track record of hiring highly motivated technicians immediately after graduation and developing their research skills so they are competitive for admission to medical, graduate, and other professional schools. Technicians who are interested in a career in lab research can also progress in this track while being continuously challenged to grow and improve as scientists.

My expectation of technicians is 40 hours of focused, concentrated hard work per week. This can include but is not limited to planning and performing experiments, analyzing data, attending lab meetings, communicating about experiments with others in the lab, and learning how to do new types of experiments. Some technicians choose to spend some of their time “light working” (e.g., sending emails or catching up on experiment documentation while watching Netflix or ESPN). This is fine, though generally speaking two hours of light work is equal to one hour of focused work, so the total number of hours worked per week is higher for those who choose to work in this way.




Graduate students

The number of graduate students varies based on available funding (see ‘Why does funding matter?‘), but I have consistently had between 2-5 students pursuing PhDs in my lab since its inception. Graduate students are accepted into my lab after being admitted to a UW-Madison graduate program. If you are reading this, you might be interested in my opinionated guides to applying to graduate school and successfully completing a rotation in my lab.

I am a graduate student trainer in the PhD training programs listed below. All of these programs have competitive admissions. After students are accepted into these programs, they are expected to rotate in 3-4 labs before choosing a thesis advisor. I believe these rotations are essential for students to make an informed choice, so I do not accept direct admissions into my lab, nor do I accept students who are conditionally accepted to UW-Madison contingent upon finding a thesis advisor.

Graduate student expectations

For potential graduate students who are considering a rotation, 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.

Graduate student training philosophy

Getting an advanced degree in biology can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Conducting a multi-year project develops character and leads to both personal and professional growth. One of the most challenging aspects of graduate school is that the most important decision, that of choosing a thesis laboratory, must be made when students are just beginning the process. There are many different laboratory styles, and there is no such thing as a laboratory that is a good fit for everyone. Each lab will have a different composition and emphasis. One constant, however, is that you will have an important relationship with your Principal Investigator. A Principal Investigator’s philosophy towards graduate education should be an important consideration when choosing a lab. I think it is valuable to share my perspectives on training. Here is my philosophy, presented as an easy-to-digest top 10 list.

1) You are in charge of your own success.

I cannot overemphasize this point. While I try to foster a supportive lab environment, your success will depend far more on you than it will on me. I expect graduate students to work exceptionally hard to become successful. There will be setbacks, there will be frustration, but it is the responsibility of the student to persevere and overcome adversity.

2) The journey is at least as important as the destination.

An important point that was not emphasized nearly enough when I chose a laboratory as a graduate student. The reality of graduate school is that most students, if they are willing to work 5 or more years, will eventually be awarded a Ph.D. All Ph.D.s are not created equally, though. Almost all careers that require Ph.D.s are competitive. If you want to get a post-doctoral fellowship in a prestigious lab, become a lecturer at a small liberal arts college, or find a good management post in industry you will be competing against other people who have the same letters after their names. How do you set yourself apart? The answer is simple. Publish. In peer-reviewed journals. If you do not have at least two first-name publications in reputable journals by the end of your Ph.D., you will find it difficult to be competitive for post-doctoral positions. If you want to be really competitive for these positions, aim for four. Publication-quality research is also far more likely to be presented at research meetings and conferences attended by your potential future employers. Is it easy to get 2-4 publications? Absolutely not. That is why it is critical to work passionately and intensely through your entire graduate school career.

Along the same lines, here is some unsolicited advice for prospective graduate students. Look carefully at the publication records of the laboratories that you are considering. If the lab has not published consistently in good journals it is unlikely that you will reverse the trend. Past performance does typically predict future success.

3) Smarts matter. Passion matters more. 

I’m looking for passion in graduate students who are considering my lab. Again, I feel that passion is often reflected in ones past performance. While a high college GPA does not predict success, it does show that a prospective student can stay committed to a goal and work hard, qualities that are instrumental in graduate student success. I also want students who are genuinely interested in fighting viruses and other major human pathogens, not just “doing science”. I acknowledge that this may turn off a large number of prospective students who might otherwise consider my lab. I don’t care. The urgency of research calls out for committed scientists who are willing to work together for the greater good. I  try my absolute best to be this type of person and scientist, and I want and expect the same from members of my laboratory.

4) My laboratory has high expectations for written English. 

Ph.D. students need to have a good command of written English. If you do not write well when starting as a Ph.D. student, you must work hard to develop these skills during graduate school. Scientists who do not write clearly will have difficulty communicating with others in my lab (which relies on written asynchronous communication) and getting their work published or funded.

I debated updating this point to encompass working with large datasets too. Almost all of the experiments in my lab generate large datasets that need to be analyzed reproducibly. This means using computational tools extensively. While you do not need a computer science degree to succeed in my lab, you will need to be eager to learn how to use languages like Python and R to process and interpret your data. If your biology degree did not include any computer science coursework, I encourage you to take an introductory Data Carpentry, Software Carpentry, or equivalent class regardless of whose lab you want to join. I expect that five years from now, having computational biology experience will be a prerequisite for joining my lab as a graduate student.

5) Students should strive to finish their Ph.D.s in four years.

The average student at UW-Madison obtains a Ph.D. in approximately five years. Elsewhere in the world, the average is closer to three years. The beginning of graduate school is designed to expand the scope of a student’s knowledge while teaching him or her how to research, while the following years focus on developing a depth of knowledge in a highly specialized niche. Learning how to develop this knowledge is important, as is how to apply it successfully in a research lab. Unless you are going to continue researching in the same niche, there is a definite point of diminishing returns. Publishing early and often will accelerate Ph.D. completion.

6) Classes are worth what they are worth to you.

If you haven’t heard it yet, you will eventually hear the adage “B equals Ph.D.” This is largely true. Classes in graduate school are important, but not as important as research. In my opinion, students should be selective and truly apply themselves to those courses that genuinely spark their interest. But remember that most graduate student learning occurs in the lab, not the classroom, and that it is your research pedigree, not your class rank, that will impress your post-graduate employers.

7) It is important to be a good campus citizen. 

Our lab does not exist in a vacuum, though it does sometimes seem that way. Graduate students should go out of their way to actively participate in their programs, support their classmates when they have seminars, and be involved in their departments. But at the same time, learning to establish priorities and how to say “no” to untenable requests is also important.

8) Graduate students should be well-rounded.

The philosophy above may lead you to think that I accept nothing less than single-minded dedication to research. I do have high expectations, and meeting these expectations will require hard work. Lots of hard work. But it is important to have outside interests. Burn-out is all too common among graduate students. I personally guard against burnout by carving out time with my wife, keeping a regular schedule, and participating in sports. During graduate school, I ran a lot and found it cathartic. A few years later, I started playing ultimate frisbee. Then basketball. Then softball. When I destroyed my ankle playing frisbee, I started biking. Then soccer…and some racquetball. After I broke my leg running, I took up triathlons and am now playing tennis again. Sports are my release from the pressure of work, and I think graduate students need to have something outside of work to counterbalance work demands. But remember that work is demanding. I am not going to count the number of hours a graduate student works because, as I mentioned elsewhere on this website, I fear that this leads to confusion between activity and achievement. I want achievement, not activity. The truth, though, is that the life of a successful graduate student is demanding, with the research imposing hefty demands on his or her time. Success in graduate school is typically incompatible with extremely time-consuming outside interests (e.g., participating on club sports teams or holding a second full time job).

9) A graduate student is not a technician.

It is important that graduate students are responsive and open with me. Early on, students will probably be asked to participate in lab projects, using our existing lab protocols. Throughout graduate school, they will be expected to conform to the systems we have established for notekeeping, oragnization, maintenance, etc. As their projects take shape, students will need to become experts themselves. I am coordinating a large number of projects and feel that my primary job is to provide the resources and environment conducive to success. Students should know more than me about their projects. They should have a better grasp of the literature. They should be driving the evolution of their projects and designing innovative experiments. I expect that graduate students will be the engine that propels my laboratory, and this requires independence both in thought and action. Learning to think independently during graduate school will prepare students for the future, where prospective employers will expect them to think themselves, not simply follow the instructions of others.

10) The laboratory is not just another place to work.

I love the research that we do, and I hope that everyone in my lab does too. Though we are in a competitive area of research, it is important that everyone checks their egos at the door. We try to do work the right way — that means we share our results with one another and with other labs. That means we cooperate and collaborate with others who want to work with us. That means we remember that there are other people, lots of people, who place their trust in unlocking the secrets of viral diseases and genomics to labs like ours, and we should not abuse this trust. Everyone needs to be humble enough to admit their mistakes and accepting enough to work well with others.

If, after reading this, you think that my graduate student philosophy is compatible with your personality, feel free to contact me.

PhD training programs

Cellular & Molecular Pathology Graduate Program

Graduate Program in Cellular and Molecular Biology (CMB)

Microbiology Doctoral Training Program

ICTR Graduate Program in Clinical Investigation

I am also a member of the following programs that offer prestigious, competitive predoctoral research fellowships. My students have had an excellent record of receiving funding through these programs.

PhD research fellowship programs

Cellular and Molecular Pathology T32 Training Grant

Molecular Biosciences Training Grant

Microbes in Health and Disease Training Program

Computation and Informatics in Biology and Medicine (CIBM) Training Program

Parasitology & Vector Biology Training Program


Undergraduate students

Undergraduates interested in gaining research experience should contact me directly. I do not accept Bio 152 students because I do not believe one semester is long enough for a meaningful research experience. Preference is given to undergraduates who are interested in working (paid) in the lab during the summer. We are particularly interested in high-achieving undergraduate freshmen and sophomores who are considering graduate or medical studies. Classroom success requires the same type of tenacity, motivation, and diligence needed for success in a research laboratory, though academic achievement alone is no guarantee of laboratory success. The roles and responsibilities of undergraduates will be determined by their experience. Generally, undergraduates will begin as paid student hourlies responsible for general laboratory chores. Mentored research is a possibility and a privilege for those undergraduates who excel as student hourlies. If you are serious about wanting to work in my lab, I expect that you will at least read my website about what I expect from students before contacting me. So please include the password “Bucky” in your initial email contact so I can give you bonus points if you took the time to read this page.

High school students

I have really enjoyed mentoring exceptionally motivated high school students through the Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program. Both of the students who I met through this program are still working in my lab during college. Mentoring high school students requires a large investment of time, so I will typically only have one YAP student in the lab at a time.