Graduate School Admissions

I recently volunteered to serve on the admission committee for the Yale Biological and Biomedical Sciences program. Prior to commencing my post-doc in Boston, all my education had been in Australia. Therefore, I wanted to learn more about every aspect and also differences between the U.S. and Australian system so I would be in a better position to advise students in the future. One very major difference is that the prospective students apply to the graduate school, try out labs by doing a short rotation project and then select the lab after 3-4 rotations. In Australia, students select the lab and then apply for a scholarship with the affiliated University. The Australian student typically has done a honors (i.e. final year) research project and/or been a research assistant for the lab. In my opinion, I find the U.S. system a bit convoluted and there is little incentive to fully invest in junior scientist with little skill, who will then leave your lab to make another lab more productive! Instead you are left with making a extremely risky 4-6 year commitment to a student that has worked in your lab part-time for ~6 weeks. But I will stop complaining and go back on topic!

Serving on the admissions committee has been a wonderful experience that has given me insight into the diverse range of skills, motivations and experience that next years students will have. More importantly, it has given me experience on how to assess students based on their application packet through the broad guidelines that were given and also hearing the more experienced faculty members discuss the candidates. The guidelines given were broad and allowed each of the members to use some discretion in assessing what they believe should be important in an applicant. I was pleasantly surprised that my scoring was almost identical to my experienced peers for the candidates at the cut-off and above, which shows that I either used a similar assessment criteria or it was just pure fluke. For the sake of this post, let’s just assume the former.

My number one assessment criteria is the diverse range and depth of research experience the candidate had gained prior to applying, though making allowance for opportunities available to the candidate. This demonstrates to me that the candidate didn’t decide to become a researcher overnight because they are talented and it was the natural next thing to do. The candidate would then have been exposed to the hash realities of research such as:

  • experiments rarely working
  • struggles of pursuing funding for research
  • the “interesting personalities” you meet in high achieving labs
  • the pros and cons of joining small or large labs
  • lab politics
  • How manuscripts are constructed including authorship lists (aka how the sausage gets made!)
  • job prospects in academia

I haven’t been in research long enough to be jaded so of course there are a huge range of positives but wanted candidates to be fully aware of the harsh realities before they commit some of the best years of their life to a research program.

The following (in order of importance) is what I reviewed in the application packet:

1. CV
This was what I used to assess a candidate’s “research journey” to date. The big thing I was looking for in each CV is the number of publications the candidate was included and am not at all interested in manuscripts in preparation. It did not look so good for candidates that had been in labs for over two years and was not included as a middle author on any publications. I also looked at poster presentations as these are more opportunities that junior scientist usually receive. Lastly, first author publications are absolute gold and made the candidate stand out. Sometimes opportunities to be involved in publications is largely dependent on the lab and of course luck. Candidates that showed initiative in enrolling in (online) courses, writing blogs and sharing code via github is also a huge plus! Note: I paid little attention to things that I couldn’t independently verify.

2. Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)
In the land of rainbows, butterflies and unicorns where watching motivational videos is all you need to do to achieve your goals, the GRE doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, this utopian world where last place gets a trophy does not exist. The GRE to me is not fully a measure of aptitude but rather how badly someone wants something. It shows me how hard someone is willing to prepare and how many times they are willing to do the test for a competitive score. These of course are highly desirable qualities for candidates. A low score shows to me that candidates have questionable standards and/or if they are suitable for a graduate school program. Of course, there are different opinions on this but it all comes down to if a faculty member is willing to take that 4-6 year gamble on a student based on low GRE scores.

3. Statement of Purpose
Reading this section of the application was my favorite part of the whole process! I find each person’s journey as unique and very interesting. I really appreciate the effort and care taken by each applicant in writing this section. I have the following tips for applicants:

  • Realize that reviewers are reading a lot these! The first paragraph really needs to capture the reviewer, try to make it unique and interesting as possible as your reader would gladly appreciate this.
  • If you have generic paragraphs where the names of graduate schools can be easily substituted. This is more than obvious so don’t think you are fooling the reviewers. Mentioning very specific details such as faculty members and why their research focus appeals to you shows to me that you have made some attempt to really consider the research program.
  • In explaining your research project and experiences try not to go deep into the weeds. I would rather you explain the importance of the research and what the findings mean. Also, keep in mind if it gets too technical that the reviewer themselves may not understand!
  • Stick to the page limit. By reading lots of applications, I can infer what the page limit is. If you go over it’s quite obvious. It shows to me you can’t follow simple instructions or believe you are special and rules don’t apply to you! Either way, not good.
  • Let some of your personality shine through. This is the only chance, I really get to know the candidate.

4. Letters of Recommendations
Firstly, in my 38 years on this Earth, I have not read a bad reference letter. This makes it extremely hard to put any weight at all to this. I do realize that the U.S. style is extremely over the top compared to other cultures. This tweet best sums it all.

I’m only left to focus on subtle things:

  • Your current boss has not written you a letter. If you haven’t addressed the reason somewhere else in your application, this is an extreme red flag.
  • Letters without a letter head and signature are just sloppy and questionable.
  • People tend to be generous with words but more honest with numbers. The application process does require referees to rate the applicant separate to the letter.
  • If it can be avoided, only include people that can comment on you as a researcher. I’m not as interested in your Professor commenting on your performance on undergraduate courses.
  • At times it can be obvious, when Professors write letters based on a draft you have written, so at the least, try to write a different draft for each. Also double check on spelling mistakes, it’s obvious when the same spelling mistake appears in all three of the letters!

Conclusion
I wrote this is response to this tweet. Now having served as a reviewer, I strongly believe the application itself is actually a summary of a long directed journey, which can not be changed so easily through someone simply editing and reviewing your application before submitting.

Disclaimer: Thoughts, comments, bad humor, sarcasm and political incorrect statements are purely my own opinion. Bad grammar, structure and lack of eloquence is purely my employers fault for not building a time machine, going back in time and putting me in a better elementary school that I deserve! 🍣

Lab Mission Statement

Our lab aims to understand the genetic mechanism of rare diseases that may lead to rational approaches for therapies. We will focus on interpreting non-coding variants and variants of unknown significance to end the diagnostic odyssey for patients. Another focus will be to train the next generation of scientist building an environment that prioritizes research integrity, excellence and teamwork.

Integrity
As a group leader I no longer have the time to check every little detail of everyone’s work. It’s important then to have a team that I fully trust in terms of honesty and thoroughness. Ethical behavior unfortunately cannot be taught, if you don’t have strong morales, a few multiple choice questions at the end of CITI training is not going to change that! Fortunately, the majority of times honesty is not an issue and it’s rather thoroughness. We will strive to create an open, nurturing and friendly team environment, where members are encouraged to share mistakes, contradictory results, ask dumb questions and ask questions as many times until they do understand.

“Integrity is about doing the right thing and not necessarily the easy thing.”

Excellence
If you have made it this far in life, you are already gifted but I believe passion, curiosity and getting stuff done are key components in achieving excellence. Passion to me is rushing in first thing in the morning to see if your bacterial transformation worked, it’s working all of Friday night because your sequencing results that you been waiting all week just came in at 4pm and its waking up early in the morning to prepare for a journal club presentation. Curiosity is wanting to know why things didn’t work, breaking things that already work to understand new things and always questioning things. Lastly, excellence in ideas is fantastic but will go to waste if there is no hard work in getting stuff done. This means constantly bugging that collaborator or sale person until they send you what you need, it means writing that manuscript on the weekend when your friends are at Cape Cod, it means coming in the lab on a Sunday afternoon so that your Monday isn’t wasted, it means planning your time carefully so you have something to present at lab meeting or in your meeting with your mentor. I will acknowledge and reward excellent work and show constant gratitude to team members that are busting their ass.

“Excellence is pretending like you are number #2 wanting to get to number #1 … ALL the time!”

Teamwork
Teamwork is not about being around for the good times but it’s being around during the difficult times and doing the little things when no one is looking! This means watching your team mates practice their presentation for the fifth time, it means coming in early in the morning to prep up reagents for a team mates experiment, it means cleaning up a mess that someone left in the lab instead of just reporting it and it means staying up late at night debugging code with a team mate for their analysis. All projects in our lab will be team projects, where each team member can contribute, develop new skills and which we can share the burden and success as a team. Each team member will unambiguously be assigned a role in each project and will play a leadership role in at least one project.

“Ensuring team members are emotionally secure will allow them to fully concentrate on what they do best.”

The focus on integrity, excellence and teamwork was advice from Professor Christopher Semsarian who led an awesome lunchtime mentorship forum with trainees during his visit at the Broad Institute.

The journey so far – Part 1

On Friday night 9th of June 2017, I signed an offer to become an Assistant Professor of Genetics at Yale School of Medicine. This completed a 13 year journey from leaving my job at IBM in 2004, a few years after receiving a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy to leading my own research group. I was really excited that weekend and created the Lek lab wordpress website but procrastinated on what would be my first post. Many possibilities came to mind such as something about science, future plans, my shameless love for 90s diva music, cool PS4 games I want to buy this summer, etc. Anything cooler than my first lame post on BioLektures as a graduate student!

I decided to write my first blog on the journey so far such that prospective team members will know the non-traditional mountain that I have climbed to get here and the wonderful view and journey ahead. This will be a three part blog broken up into my diagnostic odyssey, research in Australia and then in Boston.

Not many people know that my parents and my six siblings came to Australia as Cambodian refugees with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. I was the youngest of the seven children. During my childhood, I didn’t have much and grew up in a working class suburb of Sydney and was extremely grateful that we had a house, food, free public education and health care. Growing up in a big family you learned how to share, big time! I had to share the bedroom with five other siblings and it kinda sucked most of the time. Coming from such a humble childhood, words like entitlement and luxury were replaced with gratitude, hard work and persistence. My parents wanted my brothers and sisters to live the “Cambodian dream” and that is to study hard, get a good job, get a house and have kids! Lolz this youtube video quite sums up my childhood.

In high school, I had a fantastic mathematics teacher and actually was my only math teacher for all 6 years! He showed me effective communication, empathy and caring were far more important qualities than mere intelligence. His confidence and belief in me removed a lot of the boundaries I set myself growing up poor and made me reach for much higher goals.

After graduating with a Computer Engineering degree, I joined IBM Australia and enjoyed intellectual freedom, which is very unusual for IT but I was very proactive in looking for opportunities to improve and develop new things. I had awesome team mates that taught the young me, a lot about office politics and collaboration. The CEO (who was responsible for all IT during the Sydney Olympic games) gave a very memorable Annual Meeting address that I still remember and apply today. He touched on three things that had made him successful. (1) Learn to filter out noise and focus (2) Know what’s worth fighting for (3) Forgiveness is easier to ask than permission!

Towards the end of University and during my time at IBM, I had this nagging dull muscle pain and fatigue particularly at the end of a long day. I was beginning to struggle going up stairs and started to lose balance easily. I visited a few medical doctors and many didn’t think much as I was young and thought it would go away. I went to doctors off and on as it wasn’t important at the time and I really didn’t want to believe that there was something wrong with me. Finally a doctor ordered a blood test looking at my Creatine Kinase (CK) levels, an indicator for muscle damage (CK is a high abundance protein in muscle that leaks into the blood stream when muscle is damaged). My CK levels were really high and he concluded that there was something seriously wrong with my muscles as I confirmed I hadn’t run a marathon or anything similar prior to the test.