Ojo OluwagbemigaGbenga Ojo joined the Immunology theme of GBS in Fall 2017.

Congratulations on choosing to embark on a journey filled with discoveries that help to alleviate diseases and suffering.

When considering graduate school, prospective students rightly often focus on just getting into a graduate program of choice. The admission letter/email and commitment to a program brings on such catharsis and relief to what is naturally a stressful and anxious process. It is easy to forget about the 5+ years of graduate school and postdoc training. In fact I left my admission email unopened for 2 whole days.

Perhaps it started from a dream or as I woke but something along the line of "rotations, rotations, rotations" on a background of the cool vibes from "Lucky I got what I want" by Jungle was stuck in my head the next few days.

As is probably of no surprise to almost everyone, most US graduate programs in the biomedical sciences have students complete a series of 3 or 4 rotations before committing to a particular lab. A rotation, as the name suggests, is designed to be a series of "internships" conducted by the students as they try to find their "home" labs. You can think of it as speed dates that are 2 months long!  I believe the choices of rotations and hence the home lab is one of the singular most important decisions first year graduate students have to make. All this before setting foot in a lab! Consider that UAB has a list of more than 350 faculty with research labs to choose from and you start to get a sense of how overwhelming it can be. Thankfully most people should not have to look through all the names of potential PIs before making a list of people to contact.

Your search for a potential rotations will inherently be limited by your research interests. Identifying three or four very broad areas of research interests would be a start. For example virology, protein structure and perhaps crystallography!

You can easily query a search for "protein structure" or by faculty appointment on the faculty web list which should produce less than 350 names! Thank god for technology and the computer scientists! A few queries should give you about 30 or so identified names whom you would like to work with based on their research description. There is a caveat that most of the web listing and research summary will be outdated. However a quick search of the primary investigator’s (PI) name and with a UAB affiliation on PubMed should give you a more recent summary of their published work. Sometimes the PI might include a lab website on the faculty web list with more recent activities in the lab. Other sources of information regarding recent research focus are the Federal Reporter and NIH reporter which enable you to look up PIs, the sources of funding if from a national agency as well as years of funding. These websites provide a lot of detailed information regarding published data associated with a current or past funded project.

While there are more than 350 research faculty, the ability of a lab to host a student depends on the funding situation of the lab. Since the funding landscape is very dynamic there will obviously be labs unavailable to rotate students at a particular time and most graduate schools would hesitate to allow a rotation in such a lab with no guaranteed funding. On the other hand, a lot of labs do have pending applications which are likely to be accepted, so availability of funds during a rotation might not preclude you from joining a lab. However, it is best to have these conversations while speaking to the PI regarding a rotation. The PIs made sure to let me know that funding was not guaranteed at the time of my first rotation and the possibility of not been able to join that lab at the end of the year if that ended up being my choice.

You hopefully have a better idea of which labs you might be interested in, now what? Contacting the PIs should be the next on your list. I advocate for emails over cold phone calls as it gives enough time for a response while cutting out any awkwardness from such a call. Most will respond within a reasonable time. The GBS office recommends including your name, research interests and CV when contacting investigators about a future rotation. A follow up would be recommended if there is no response after 3 weeks or so. For the fall admits, an email in Feb/March would not necessitate the same level of urgency as one from a summer admit. Most PIs would schedule a meeting before agreeing to a rotation. The meeting usually serves as a way to perhaps get a quick read on a student and vice versa the student on the PI. Make sure to at least have gone over their recent publications before speaking with them; you will not be expected to provide critical nuances about a paper, usually. Asking to speak with current students in the lab is a great idea as they know what it is like to be a new student and would have gone through most of the same experiences!

Feel free to email and talk to as many PIs as you want. The rotations are ultimately YOUR decisions and you should not feel pressured or rushed into any lab.

Worry first about securing your first rotation and by the end of that you will have a better idea of what you might be looking for in your second and third rotations.

So you have your first rotation set up. How exciting! Implicitly expressed during a rotations is a gauging of the fit between the PI’s mentoring style with the student and of the student’s personality with that of the lab. Do you like to see your PI daily or prefer greater independence? Do they push for the best but are kind or do they shout at you for every misplaced pin or just to let you know just how awful your mice handling skills are? These are some of the things you might want to consider while doing a rotation and perhaps when deciding to choose a lab. While you obviously keep mental or literal notes of these things, your focus still must be on working as if you already joined the lab and your plan is to graduate in a year! Obviously you are also being judged by the PI and others in the lab as to how you interact and ask questions in lab. Do you like to learn new techniques and seem to be putting on the effort required in that lab? Two to five more students might rotate through that lab in a year and there is usually only space for 1 student to join! It is in your best interest to rock each rotation and have three labs to choose from. It is still a small research community and PIs and lab members talk, hopefully about how great a student you are.

We all heard horror stories of PIs and research labs gone wrong in graduate school. More of the roots of those problems could probably be detected during the rotation which makes it more paramount to choose the right rotations.

One piece of advice would be to avoid trying to rush into choosing a lab to rotate or to join. Just because the other students seem to have figured out which labs to join doesn’t mean you have to. It’s not a race. Another great thing about the GBS program is that the rotations have been structured in such a way as to complete 4 rotations within the first year if needed. A series of shorter rotations can also be completed if a fit is not found within the normal year. There are always those students who seem to have it all figured out but at the end of the day it is YOUR graduate education. Take your time, and enjoy the process. Enough rotations should generate the centripetal force to draw you "home."

In addition, the GBS office provides a spreadsheet of PIs who are looking to accept students into their labs. GBS staff, Associate Dean Dr Schneider, and the theme directors are all available to answer any and all questions you might have.