GSBS collaborates with The Jackson Laboratory for PhD training
The six students who entered the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ Jackson Laboratory-based PhD programs in September 2020 weren’t expecting to start their graduate careers during a global pandemic. For the two Neuroscience and four Genetics students, however, the challenges of their first year of graduate school brought them closer together.
“There were five other people going through the same thing. We’re all getting tested and quarantined together, so we hung out a lot just the six of us. It really forced us to get close in those first couple months,” said Samia Pratt, a first year in the Neuro @ JAX program. “None of us could go home for Thanksgiving, so I hosted it at my house, and we celebrated birthdays. All those things you do with your friends.”
Alexis Garretson, who joined the Mammalian Genetics @ JAX program, had similar feelings. Her master’s graduation was delayed due to COVID, and she had to move from Virginia to Bar Harbor, Maine during the pandemic. “There was so much uncertainty,” she said. “Right after I interviewed everything shut down, so there was a lot of uncertainty when I was picking my program, trying to figure out what would happen if I went to these different places.”
Like Pratt, Garretson found community and support in her classmates. “Because we were getting tested once a week, our cohort was getting together pretty regularly,” she said. “It made it feel like we had a lifeline.” Genetics student Sherrea Brown echoed Garretson’s sentiment. “We’ve all had to struggle through this together, and we can relate to the challenges we’ve had to face,” she said.
In addition to the support they received from their cohort, the first-year JAX students appreciated the work done by the program to make sure they could stay safe in the lab. “I felt taken care of during the whole pandemic period,” said Yehya Barakat, a student in the Neuro program (and a graduate of GSBS’s Master’s Program in Pharmacology and Drug Development).
“I had lived in Boston for the majority of my time in the U.S.; I didn’t have a driver’s license, and they were able to accommodate that. They had special quarantine housing when I first moved here and regular testing,” they said. “It made me feel like I made the right choice.”
Genetics student Madison Armstrong agreed with Barakat. “I felt like everyone at GSBS and at JAX did everything they could to make things go as smoothly as possible for us,” said Armstrong.
Because of the hard work put in by the administrators at GSBS and JAX, the first-year students were able to complete lab rotations – three for Neuro students, four for those in Genetics – before choosing an area for their thesis research. These rotations gave them the opportunity to learn different techniques and explore a variety of research labs. Chelsy Li, a Genetics student, was able to practice using mouse models in Dr. Jennifer Trowbridge’s lab before ultimately joining Dr. Rob Burgess’s lab, where she studies neurodegenerative disease.
“JAX is famous for its mouse models; I had been working with cell models as a research tech studying Alzheimer’s disease, and wanted to learn about animal models,” she said. “Dr. Trowbridge’s research is in hematology, but she works with mice and I wanted to get a feel for mouse-based research. I learned a lot from that rotation.”
The other first-year students agreed with Li about the opportunity to explore different areas of biomedical research. “I was able to pick up something from each rotation experience,” said Brown. “I ended up joining Steve Murray’s lab and working on developmental biology; it was a lot different from what I thought I would end up doing, but I meshed really well with the lab group and became interested in the research through my rotation.”
“I truly enjoyed all my rotations,” said Barakat. “Every one of them filled a gap in my knowledge.” They ended up joining Vivek Kumar’s lab, but wishes they could get all of their rotation PIs – Kumar, Catherine Kaczorowski, and Elissa Chesler – to collaborate on a project.
Garretson – who ended up working in Beth Dumont’s lab – agreed wholeheartedly. “The hardest thing was picking between rotations,” she said. “One of the things I’ve really liked about the rotations is figuring out what kind of scientist I want to be.”
Garretson valued the ability to explore during her rotations and advised new students to do the same. “Take a rotation that you’re not sure you’re going to like, that’s outside your comfort zone,” she said. Armstrong agreed: “Don’t be close-minded when it comes to what you want to do with your thesis work or which labs you’re interested in. Something might seem less appealing when you read about it on the website, but once you learn more and talk to people about their projects, you realize it’s really interesting to you.”
When it comes to advice for prospective JAX students, the first-years also suggested thinking about the benefits of living in Bar Harbor for the duration of the program.
“Bar Harbor’s a great place to live,” said Brown, who moved to Maine from Florida, “but it also takes a certain kind of person to live in Bar Harbor; it gets cold, and when it’s not tourist season a lot of places are closed.”
“I’m not from the North,” Armstrong said, “so the winter was interesting for me.” As someone who grew up without snow, she was impressed at Bar Harbor’s handling of winter. She also likes the small-town feel.
“Bar Harbor is unique. You get the small-town aspect of things, with fewer big-city distractions, but it’s quite lively in the summer.”
Of course, living in Bar Harbor comes with proximity to nature. “Everywhere you go looks like a scene from a postcard,” Barakat said. “From my office, I can see the ocean and the mountains in the distance.”
Some of the students use the environment to de-stress. “Whenever I’m frustrated with an experiment,” said Li, “I can go out for a hike and relax.” Pratt agreed: “One of the highlights of working at JAX is throwing your PCR in the thermocycler, having two hours to kill, and going for a hike.”