Each month, an IRIC student explores a lesser-known aspect of scientific research. This month, Samuel Rochette, a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology, explains what really means a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology.
When we meet new people, one of the first things we generally ask is what kind of work they do. When I get asked that question, I take a deep breath and answer quickly: “I’m a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology.” I must confess that I don’t like to say it because every time, the answer is met with a wide-eyed expression that could be summed up in two words: “Say what?”
When you think about it, it’s a perfectly normal reaction. Indeed, this short answer contains two terms that are far from concrete to the uninitiated: “Ph.D.” (which is typically associated with doctors in medicine) and “molecular biology” (in the best of scenarios, the latter is linked to a long-forgotten high school course, and the former… to a type of cuisine?). I figured it was a good idea to devote an article to demystify those two scary words and to show that there are no aliens hidden under the white coat creatures living in university laboratories.
A science Ph.D.—say what?
The first thing to clarify is the objective of a science Ph.D. In short, a Ph.D. candidate must drive science forward through discoveries leading to one or several scientific publications. No discovery, no Ph.D.
Fortunately, students are not released into the scientific wild without supervision. At the onset, the supervisor will assign a biology question, and the student will work towards finding an answer over a period of five to six years. Supervisors are research professors, and mentoring students is one of their most important tasks. However—one point I want to stress out—contrary to the common portrayal in advertisements and news reports featuring professors dressed in white coats with pipettor in hand, research professors rarely do experiments in the laboratory. Their work is mostly focussed on supervising the progress of projects conducted in their laboratory by students, postdoctoral fellows and employees. Another major part of their work—one that eats up a lot of time and that many professors would prefer to do without—is to seek funding. Because yes, science is very expensive!
What is the day-to-day life of a Ph.D. candidate?
The second thing to clarify concerns the day-to-day life of biology graduate students. In disciplines related to humanities, students can work on their thesis from a desk, a library or a specific territory of observation. That’s not possible for most of the subcategories of natural sciences such as chemistry, physics, and biology. To advance their thesis project, students must experiment in a laboratory. So, the daily life of science Ph.D. candidates consists in conducting multiple scientific experiments which, individually, will provide answers to very pointed questions linked to their thesis project. Combined, experiment results give a global view of a biological phenomenon, and that’s when it becomes possible to write a thesis.
For instance, to understand the role of a poorly-studied biological molecule, we could start by performing an experiment to identify the other molecules interacting with it in the cell. We could then conduct another experiment to know which part of the aforementioned molecule is important in mediating these interactions, and then another to establish the cellular localization in the cell, and so on. The possibilities of experiments are endless! And they can all lead to findings, which, in turn, will lead to a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying cancer and a faster discovery of new therapies.
It would be unfair to narrow down the contribution of students and postdoctoral fellows to an “extra pair of hands.” While it is true that at the beginning of their doctoral training, students are less familiar with their project and the methods available to them to answer biology questions, a reasonable intellectual progress is expected from them—a progress that will gradually make them autonomous. After all, isn’t that the goal of a Ph.D.?
A rollercoaster of emotions
Finally, while a Ph.D. involves long hours in a laboratory, it’s also a rollercoaster of emotions. By working five years on the same project, students become, through force of circumstance, closely linked to the results. We end up taking ownership of the project: it’s our baby, something we created and we look forward to see succeed.
That concludes our quick tour of what it means to be a “Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology,” and I hope that in the future, those words will leave you slightly less dumbfounded! 🙂
Ph.D. Student in molecular biology
M. Therrien Laboratory
Samuel’s thesis project aims to determine whether a greater or smaller presence of a protein called MapKinase can induce the formation of tumours in some types of cancer. This largely unexplored mechanism to date has the potential to significantly increase our understanding of the molecular dynamics of cancer.