Ask a professor!
This quarter, our guest faculty member is Dr. Daniel Stetson, assistant professor in the Immunology department at UW. He has provided answers to some of the questions you asked in our survey last quarter.
Have questions you’d like answered? Want to suggest a guest expert? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
1) What other careers did you consider?
I have considered many alternative careers at different times in my life: Spiderman (Age 4), Marine Biologist who swims with orcas at Sea World (Age 14), Nihilist (Age 15-16), Professional Beer Drinker (Age 21-present), Biotech (Age 27), Fly fishing guide (Age 24-28), Professional wine maker/drinker (Age 33-present).
2) What would you do differently if you were to do graduate school over again?
I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. It was a fantastic time in my life, perhaps the one I would go back to in a “Groundhog Day” scenario if I had the chance. I worked my ass off in lab but also found time to have fun. I had a wonderful mentor in a great lab with a difficult set of projects that had their own major ups and downs. My classmates, labmates, and departmental colleagues were uniformly amazing and I formed life-long friendships. I met my future wife standing in line at my favorite burrito joint in September of my 2nd year of grad school. We went on all sorts of camping, fishing, rafting, backpacking trips with friends. It was an exciting time where we could work hard and play hard, without all the other responsibilities that come along when you grow up.
3) Does everyone start to become disillusioned with science as they go through grad school? Does the love of science come back?
I had a near nervous breakdown during my 4th year of grad school. I had run into what seemed to be immovable technical obstacles, and it was a real low point for me. I think that many grad students go through this, and from my experience 4th year tends to be the most difficult. Science is tough. It should be. Nature sometimes doesn’t give up the answers without a fight. And if you work on something that doesn’t challenge you, that doesn’t REALLY make you think of a way around a difficult problem, you should find an area that does. Keep in mind that on a practical level, all we really do is pipet small volumes of things from one container to another. You have to be connected to the questions, to the big picture side of things, or it can get very boring very quickly.
4) All grants/fellowships include optimistic and exciting “purpose statements” detailing the cures and breakthroughs that rely on the funding of the proposal to occur. Most of the time, said cures/breakthroughs don’t happen. Are we abusing public trust?
It does sometimes bother me that the best way to make your research attractive is to connect it to a specific human disease or health problem, especially in this difficult funding climate. I wish there were more emphasis placed on discovery and basic research without this translational component. However, the biomedical science community is absolutely not abusing public trust or wasting public money. The road from ideas to cures or therapies is often long, but it does happen. Chris Goodnow, a great immunologist from Australia, was recently here for a seminar and he made a simple statement that speaks directly to this question. He said that that the worldwide health care cost savings from the smallpox vaccine alone – a vaccine developed through basic research that completely eradicated a deadly disease – would more than pay for ALL biomedical research undertaken before or since, including great fundamental discoveries that were not ever intended to treat or cure a specific human disease.