You wake up early in the morning with plans of what needs to be done filling your mind. You rush through the day with long experiments that invariably do not produce the desired results. In the middle of all this, you find time and energy to make your way through an endless jungle of research articles. You end your day making plans for what needs to be done tomorrow. And when you finally reach your bed you dream about your potential paper or have nightmares about your competitor getting it out first. ...
A typical graduate student life can be accurately described in these few lines, and they're certainly true for those at Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB). But my experiences these past 4 years as an IMCB graduate student convince me that they don't do the institute justice. So when I was asked to write about those experiences, I called on a few of my fellow students. Together we came to the conclusion that although each of us has had somewhat different experiences, there are some underlying fundamentals that we all felt accurately describe life as a graduate student here at IMCB.
IMCB is at the forefront of biomedical research in Asia. It attracts and recruits the best talent from various countries around Asia and the world through a highly selective process. When a graduate student comes to IMCB, they are given the choice of a few labs that they can join. Students have the option to start their thesis project straight away; however, this rarely happens. Instead, most students spend the first 2 years finishing all the coursework requirements and learning their way around the scientific and sometimes nonscientific aspects of the lab. This training provides the solid foundation that students will need if they are to succeed as scientists in future. It involves learning about experimental procedures, research independence, communicating your scientific work with fellow scientists, and developing productive collaboration with lab mates and other people.
The graduate admissions committee and the student committee are always at hand to answer any queries or doubts. And the student committee works with the students to organize various cultural events and seminars. These events are great fun and they provide a platform for graduate students to meet each other.
So what sets IMCB apart from many other places to do graduate studies? I think it has to be the collaborative atmosphere for research. Most principal investigators and postdocs have a very open and generous attitude towards information and resource sharing. Most of them are willing to take that extra time out to listen and help the graduate students brainstorm their experimental results. I have found these discussions to be extremely helpful. They lead to productive criticisms of data and provide useful possible suggestions. And when you unexpectedly run out of some reagent, there is, more often than not, somebody in the institute who is willing to share some, even if it's late at night or on weekends. This is an obvious advantage, because it means that your research is limited only by what you want to do and how you want to do it.
Singapore, and with it the IMCB, is an island, both literally and scientifically. This could be seen as a disadvantage--there is no doubt that we are physically located very far away from the epicenters of scientific activity. And even when you want to pay people good money to fly to Singapore, they often think twice before taking the long flight. This is especially a concern for science's novices, graduate students like me; unless we take the initiative to do our own exploring, the only world of science we know is the one our bosses see. In reality, however, this is not the case at IMCB. IMCB has in place programmes such as the Raffles Seminar series and the LKY Distinguished Visitor series, among many others. They actively invite and get local and overseas speakers to give seminars and sometimes lectures for our graduate courses. Even we, as graduate students, get to invite and spend some quality time with the big guns in the field. As my fellow ex-graduate student Tong-Wey, who has since moved on to further his studies in the United States, points out, "It was really fortunate for us to have met the likes of Paul Nurse, Azim Surani, and Randy Schekman. It gave us a glimpse of what the action is like in the epicenters of science and what types of personalities these movers and shakers have. Even at Baylor, I have yet to meet that many big guns and talk to them directly."
Just last year I went to San Diego for the annual Drosophila conference where I met up with some other graduates of IMCB who have since moved on in their careers. I asked them how valuable they thought their IMCB experiences had been, and all of them told me that their graduate days at IMCB were a very enriching, both scientifically and otherwise. They told me that the training they had received at IMCB was very good and had prepared them well for their postdoctoral endeavors.
All in all, few things in this world can compare with the exhilaration of a graduate student who gets that perfect staining data or that flawless western blot. It is these experiences that above all make all those hardships and failures that you face as a graduate researcher worthwhile and inspire you to continue the exploration. I think my fellow graduate student Joy Tan illustrates the experiences of an IMCB graduate student in a nutshell: " After finishing my university studies in Australia, I came back to my home country and joined IMCB as a postgraduate student. Not knowing what to expect, I decided to go after my interest and work in an immunology lab. With the numerous advanced resources, equipment, and media preparation facilities provided at our convenience, together with the opportunity to go to conferences anywhere in the world, it is a luxury that any graduate student can ask for. The experiences in IMCB have been enriching; the grueling training gives us independence, teaches us to think broadly, hones our experimental techniques, and allows us to develop proper presentation skills."
In conclusion, I would just like to add here that apart from the excellent scientific training, what makes IMCB special is the fact that it brings together talented people from different parts of the world. Going through the courses, endless days and nights in the labs, and finally writing and correcting the papers, most of us develop very special friendships that will last longer than a lifetime.