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New Challenges to Classic Dreams

Although graduate students still drive the nation’s research, they face stiffer competition than students in Carol Greider’s generation.

December 2009 -- As the second-year graduate student hurried into the lab on Christmas Day to check an experiment, she was seeking an answer that she and her faculty mentor had been chasing for nine months. And there it was: a pattern on a piece of X-ray film that would become known as telomerase, an enzyme that may help fight cancer and age-related diseases.

A quarter century later, that graduate student, Carol Greider, now a Hopkins professor and director of Molecular Biology and Genetics, travelled to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept her Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. Greider—who shared this year’s award with her mentor, Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, Berkeley—has often credited that 1984 discovery as the catalyst for the other breakthroughs that have secured her scientific immortality. And for many of the graduate students at the school of medicine, the timing of that first discovery continues to resonate.

“The fact that she made it when she was 23 really demonstrates that big findings can happen at any time,” says Hopkins graduate student Meghdad Rahdar. “What fuels my coming into lab each day is inspiring stories like these as well as knowing there are so many unanswered questions.”

While graduate students’ passion for discovery remains strong, department and lab heads at the school of medicine say that many of today’s young scientists find it more difficult to gain recognition for their work. In this era of “big science” collaborations between labs and institutions, student contributions to peer-reviewed articles can appear less important. And the explosion in the number of students has increased competition to publish in the top-tier journals that encourage such interdisciplinary projects.

In addition, professors say, students are thinking more strategically about their careers, by forgoing the “curiosity-driven” research more common in Greider’s day in favor of disease-specific projects that may attract greater funding.

Getting Credit

Phil Cole, director of the department of pharmacology and molecular sciences, believes Greider was awarded the prize, in part, because she and her mentor Elizabeth Blackburn were the only authors on the 1985 breakthrough paper in Cell, leaving no doubt that the 23-year-old had driven the project. Now that science has become more interdisciplinary, he says, it’s not as common for a professor and student to publish a paper together that way.

“‘Big Science’ means you might have 20 authors on a paper,” he notes. “Even if the graduate student is the first author, the work tends to get associated with the lab head, the senior author, and everyone else is felt not to be making as significant a contribution.”

Prestigious journals such as Nature, Science, and Cell have redefined what constitutes an important paper, he says, and they often require it to contain material from different disciplines.

“Today, Carol might run into someone looking at her work who would say, Well, that’s interesting, but where’s the mouse data? So then she’d have to bring in a mouse collaborator.”

Fortunately for Hopkins graduate students, they are more likely to receive first authorship than at institutions with larger labs that rely heavily on postdoctoral researchers, says Carolyn Machamer, director of the biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology program.

Take, for instance, Rahdar. After college, the 32-year-old pharmacology student worked a few years for Dell and IBM before following his heart back to academic science. Now he’s working with Peter Devreotes, head of the Department of Cell Biology, to learn more about a protein that acts as a tumor suppressor and may indicate a new approach to cancer therapy. He was the lead author on a paper published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 “Most of our labs are like small mom-and-pop shops,” says Peter Maloney, associate dean of graduate student affairs. “There’s no way we could survive without collaborating with our graduate students, treating them equally, encouraging them to contribute as much as they can, and giving them credit. In the basic sciences, they’re the ones who are doing most of the thinking and the experiments.”

However, these students are also competing for attention against more of their peers, thanks in part to the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003 that expanded the need for their services.

The trend is clear at Hopkins: Maloney estimates that there were fewer than 100 students at the school of medicine when he arrived in 1976. Now there are 970. This year alone, 97 students received their doctorates.

Challenges for Mentors

Greider worries that the growth in students has made it more difficult for individuals to have personal interaction with faculty other than their mentors during their first two years of course work.

“We had a core set of courses established for a certain number of students, and then suddenly other students started coming from a variety of programs,” she says. “The culture at Hopkins is ‘Yes, we will share.’ But that sharing changes things dramatically. There’s a movement to get more student interaction with faculty in those classes in the first couple of years. That has really changed, yet that’s what really matters.”

Another difference from her time is that publishing in such journals as Science has become more difficult, and also more important, for young scientists trying to secure scarce academic posts and advance their careers.

“I think there’s an overemphasis on these elite journals now,” Greider says. “People use a name as a proxy for the quality of the work. Hiring and promotions committees don’t always have the expertise to evaluate things, so they rely way too heavily on the cachet of a particular journal name.”

Recently, she steered a student to publish “a very important paper” in Nucleic Acids Research, a journal that she highly respects, so that the work would “get a fair review.” However the Nobel laureate says she also feels the pressure to publish in journals like Nature in order to aid the careers of her graduate students and postdocs.

The 10-Year Plan

In her first years as a graduate student, Greider says she didn’t worry about her future in research. She didn’t set out to be a professor with a research lab and says she has never had a “10-year plan.” Like many of her generation, she followed the most interesting questions to see where they would lead her.

That’s a luxury afforded to fewer graduate students in this age of flattened NIH budgets and disease-focused research. Some say they feel the added pressure to plan careers that will yield not only noteworthy manuscripts, but also attract grants.

“The first thing many students think about now is what job they will get,” says Devreotes. “The second is funding… Some students think that if they work on a particular disease they will have a better chance of being funded. I don’t think it’s their natural inclination; it comes more from thinking about the market they’re going into.”

Mary Katherine Tarrant, a student halfway through her fifth year in Phil Cole’s lab, feels compelled to map out each step of her career because of the fierce competition her generation faces. She has been second author on several papers, recently co-authored a paper with Cole that appeared in The Annual Reviews of Biochemistry, and is still working toward “that desired first-author paper’’ that can help secure a good postdoc position.

One of the first students in the chemical biology doctoral program, Tarrant sometimes worries whether her study of the regulation of CK2, a protein involved in cell proliferation and survival, will seem important enough to potential hiring committees. However, Greider’s graduate student legacy reminds the young scientist not to minimize her own.

“It’s often easy to get bogged down with the idea that our research as graduate students is merely part of our training,” she says. “Carol’s accomplishments remind us that we are contributing to our fields and should value our work and ideas in that way.”

Linell Smith

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