Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons

Ask Alice, Test Tubes

Credit: Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science.

Dear Alice,

[D]ifferent philosophies of training can be effective for different trainees. —Alice

Q: I recently became a faculty member at a great institution. A faculty member in another department runs a very large laboratory. Several of his trainees have asked me for supplies, which I was happy to provide. But I have found that this other laboratory offers very routine training: The trainees are being used as hands and are not learning to be effective investigators. Should I do something about this?

—D.H. Newbie, Vancouver, Canada

Dear D.H.,

A: Every principal investigator has an obligation to provide her or his trainees with sound mentorship; treating them as a pair of hands is, unfortunately, all too common. But there are reasons you shouldn’t interfere. First, if the other faculty member runs a very large laboratory, he’s probably tenured and influential within the institution, while you, apparently, are a newbie. That is not a fight you should be picking.

While the situation is troubling to you, different philosophies of training can be effective for different trainees. I have seen some very successful trainees from a highly structured laboratory and others from a seemingly chaotic, nondirected laboratory. (This is why every trainee should carefully consider the fit before joining a lab.) You should trust that those who joined the larger lab chose carefully and consciously; it’s possible that that the scientific reputation and influence of this seemingly uncaring adviser will translate into excellent career opportunities down the line. Some of trainees may have chosen poorly, but many probably chose the lab because they thought they could thrive there.

Still, if they approach you in the future about changing laboratory affiliations, don’t hesitate to let the brightest ones know that you have great projects and money to support trainees, assuming that’s true.



Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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