A double dose of advice

Dual Advisers

Credit: Robert Neubecker

In 2006, I flew across the ocean to study molecular biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. As the top graduate from my program at Zhejiang University in China, I had no problem learning from a textbook or solving equations. Graduate school, however, was not like studying from a book. In graduate school, every student writes her own book, and sometimes there is no equation to follow. I had another challenge, too, a challenge of my choosing: coordinating two labs and two advisers.

Early in graduate school, I did lab rotations in three labs, and I liked two of them. The principal investigators (PIs) in those labs—Kristi Anseth and Leslie Leinwand—were collaborators, so they agreed to let me take on a collaborative project. My goal was to engineer cardiac valve tissue for patients who need valve replacement surgery. Achieving that could have a big medical payoff, but to make it work, we needed to understand the fundamental interactions between cardiac valve cells and the tissue matrix surrounding them. It was my job to bring together fundamental and applied expertise.

Co-advised students get twice as many researchers to interact with.

In order for co-advising to be fruitful, your two PIs need to enjoy working with each other, have interests in the same projects, and be flexible when projects change directions. Mutual trust based on past experience is an important determinant of how successful the collaboration can be. Another critical factor is funding, which of course is required for conducting the research. These are things a young graduate student cannot control; I was lucky that this all worked out. The rest was up to me.

To make co-advising work, everyone needs to play an active role. But you—the graduate student—are the main actor in this movie, so you must take the lead. Here are some things I learned from the experience.

  • You need to be open-minded and a little adventurous to make co-advising work. One thing that means is that you need to fully embrace a new field—or, in some cases, two new fields. I went to work each day with the attitude that all disciplines are of equal value, each offering advantages but also the risk of narrowing one’s thinking. The goal of cross-disciplinary collaboration is to break us out of those boxes and create a new approach that complements traditional disciplines. Engineering can add a quantitative element to biology (which traditionally is qualitative) and reveal new mechanisms. Engineers can design machines and buildings based on nonliving materials very well but are not as good at harnessing living organisms, due to their variability and complexity. It is important for different disciplines to mingle so that novel concepts and ideas may emerge.
  • As a co-advised student, you may work in directions that diverge from the main themes of either lab. It is important to be independent and lead. Depending on where your projects are, you may spend more time in one lab than the other, but things can quickly change, too. In my early years, I spent more time in the molecular biology lab, but I gradually moved into the biomaterial engineering lab as I got fascinated by the possibilities of combining biomaterials and cell biology. None of this would have been possible if my advisers had not given me the freedom to explore and allowed me to lead, with their supervision.
  • Co-advised students get twice as many researchers to interact with. Take advantage of that opportunity; interactions with other researchers are necessary for a young researcher to grow. Brilliant ideas may come from formal meetings or casual chats. An idea may be simple, but only a colleague’s years of experience can make it viable.
  • Being co-advised usually means attending twice as many meetings, interacting with twice as many people, and learning techniques from both labs. So use your time efficiently and spend more time planning. My advisers scheduled their lab meetings on Wednesdays at different times, so I had two big group meetings and two small group meetings to attend on that day. So for me, Wednesday was the day for summarizing data, planning future experiments, and interacting with people in the groups. It was one of my most fun days of the week.
  • Communicating well with your advisers will engage them in the progress of your work and invite suggestions. Learn the management, scientific, and communication styles of your advisers, and integrate those styles into your own. Find a comfortable and efficient middle ground for maintaining three-way communication. It takes time, confidence, and sensitivity to learn how to communicate well, but you will use this skill to great advantage for the rest of your career.

The result? I found that culturing cardiac valve cells on synthetic hydrogels preserves their normal properties better than the traditional plastic plates do, and I discovered a signaling pathway connecting the stiffness of the supporting scaffold to the cells’ cytoskeletal structure. One laboratory taught me diverse molecular and cellular techniques, and the other trained me to engineer biocompatible scaffolds. The interaction of these disciplines shaped my scientific perspective and focused my career on understanding and engineering organs for clinical applications. I earned my Ph.D. with confidence, a deep appreciation of both disciplines, and gratitude toward both my advisers. Now I can say, “I am ready.”

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