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.
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.
- 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.”