Time-management and planning your PhD life

Hunter Jamison 19th June 2019

This interview is part of our Day in the Life series, where we explore candid accounts of scientists' joys and challenges. Today, we are speaking to Aicha Quamine, PhD researcher at UW Madison.

(Q) Tell us a bit about yourself and your research background.

I’m from New York and came to the Midwest to do my undergrad in Cleveland, Ohio, studying Pharmaceutical Sciences. It’s interesting because I got my first background into research in drug development. That was just in terms of joining a lab and understanding how it works to write papers and do experiments. I loved it enough that I decided to go into PhD. So I went straight from undergrad to PhD.

I’m one of those people that loves school. PhD is not for everyone, though. Do far it’s been my first year at UW Madison, and I have conducted my PhD since August. So I’m feeling settled in my lab now. I’d describe my research as Immuno-Oncology, basically focusing on natural killer cells (known as NK-cells) and engineering those cells in our body which actually have an innate ability to recognize malignant cells, as well as virally transform cells. The goal is to tap into that potential that is silenced in the realm of cancer to awaken it and use it as a therapy.

(Q) How did you get into that space? What/who influenced you?

I’ve definitely loved science since I was a kid. I remember my parents got me little microscopes that I would bring around, getting onion peels and looking at them and being grossed out. But in terms of real world experience, there is one professor that I can remember specifically. She was my Organic Chemistry professor for I and II. Her name is Dr. De Paoli, who’s still at Cleveland State. And just seeing the way she lit up and the way she spoke about science, and how fun she made it, and how passionate she was about it made me just admire her. Every morning she would come in happy. So she made me love Organic Chemistry and it was so easy to talk to her. She also had a PhD which I talked to her about, as well as her background in getting the PhD (or even understanding that it was an option). For the longest time, I’d been interested in research (and especially cancer research), but I thought I’d have to be a medical doctor to do it. I think in my science career Dr. De Paoli is definitely one of the people who I look back on and am so thankful for. She definitely inspired me to look at the option of a PhD and is a big reason why I’m here now.

(Q) In this process you had some guidance, but there was also self-exploration. A big part of being a scientist involves being autonomous and shaping your direction. Are there other ways that you found yourself growing into your identity as a scientist?

I think it’s a role that scientists should step into - the leadership role is definitely something that I’m still working on and I’ve been working on for many years. I’ve tried to develop that within myself by making myself do things like public speaking and getting in my community or doing this call. My interpretation of a leader involves getting out there and talking to people and trying to push your field in the direction that you want to see it - you know, be the example that you want to be.

For example, the main reason that I transitioned to my Instagram from just an Instagram into a Science Communication Platform was that I thought that would be a useful way for me to gain my leader voice and tell people about what’s going on. So definitely I think I’m looking into using social media as a form of gaining my leadership voice but also I love to do science communication in my own life and in my own university. And so when the opportunity arises to go to a high school and talk to young people who are super impressionable about the importance of science, I love to get involved in that. In terms of when people come to our lab, if I can give them a lab tour, I’ll do that.

But even before I started my PhD, I was getting into public speaking and presenting research because it is definitely agreed upon that if you cannot communicate your research, then you have no efficacy. Why are you doing research if you can’t communicate it? We have to make sure that people know about that, and that’s why I think leadership ties so well into being a scientist. If we want to improve the public’s perception of science, then we need science leaders to do that. So, like I said, it’s something that I’m working on every day - how to use my voice and push myself out there and be a leader. Definitely, you know, 9 times out of 10 put yourself in uncomfortable situations because you grow in it.

(Q) It sounds like what leadership means to you is to have a vision and communicate it. On the daily, or in the scope of a project, what are the most tedious and challenging things? What do you find most rewarding that you can grab onto to keep going?

That’s a really good question and I think it’s something important for anyone who’s looking to go into science to think about. It is tedious and it is tough. For example, just think of 48 well plates. You’ll spend some days for immuno-fluorescence putting little super thin slides in using tweezers. I mean, I think pretty much every technique in a way can be tedious. For example, another one is Western blots. I spent a long time doing Western blots and that is like a three day thing. And if you mess up you don’t know until the third day or so, and it can also be pretty isolating and it can definitely get down on your spirit. It’s really important to make sure that your goal is still clear to you. And sometimes for me that means writing it down in a place where I can see it every day.

On days when I’m tired and feeling a bit more negative than usual, it’s just better to put the work down if it’s not working - like if I’m at the lab till 8:00 p.m. and it’s not working. I think there’s definitely a balance in it. Another one of my favorite sayings is that PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. And in that way you can make it what you want. You can go in the lab and work 16 hour days and be really miserable, or you can go slowly and take each blow as it is. To be honest, science is failure and it’s a hard pill to swallow - you’re gonna fail so much, you’re going to hear so many no’s, and you’re gonna get someone to reject you.

"Self care and research do not have to be mutually exclusive. One does not have to suffer for the other."

(Q) What do you do to manage time between your teaching other interests? Do you just take breathers as needed, or do you have built-in free time?

It depends on the person. I am a super scheduler. I am super organised because if I forget to write in to have lunch, I won’t have lunch and will be angry and hungry. So the way that I balance between lab and my life is by scheduling everything. And that way I can have all my experiments planned out - I currently have like a three month plan, but I know some people that do like six months planned out. I try to stick to that as much as possible. And so that way I know what I will be tentatively doing.

And then I can fit in breaks, to be honest. Like I definitely prioritise my PhD over fun, so I’ll kind of schedule my work and my research work and my classes and all of the school stuff and things that I should be really responsible for. And then I’ll take one day and I will just not touch anything - that will be my mental health day. And I think it’s important to guard those days and make sure that you know end up having work bleed into them, because it’s really helpful to separate the two.

And I also think, in terms of just on a daily basis, I have like an hour before bed that I kind of try to put my phone down or, you know, put my work away and just kind of decompress so that I can get a good night’s sleep.

(Q) When you say you plan like three to six months ahead in the lab does that mean you’re writing out the protocols that you’re gonna do and timing out how long it’s gonna take to do the research? You digitise that right? Do you have an electronic lab notebook (ELN) you’re using?

Yes I actually do. I am using an electronic lab notebook and started with that when I began my PhD, whereas before I used only a traditional notebook. I think ELNs are the future of data collection. When you think about it, I’m only gonna be here for the duration of my PhD, but this research is going to continue. So when I leave and someone needs to find my stuff, it’s gonna be a lot easier for them to do a file search on a computer.

And then to supplement it: when I’m in the lab and I don’t want to have a computer right next to me, I’ll write those things down and then, when I get back to my desk, throw them into a document. Sometimes if I don’t have time to do it really thoroughly, I will just throw the notes in and save it and run, but then I can always come back to kind of expound upon this thing.

(Q) It sounds like planning is key to your keeping balance and responding to yourself. Do you have any other advice for younger biology students?

I would say that I have one piece of advice for people who are undergrads is to get into the lab as soon as possible. Getting that experience will never be a bad thing. I don’t think it’ll be something that you regret because it’ll be useful if you find that it’s something that you’re not really willing to do or if it’s something that you’re absolutely willing to do. And no matter what, you can always put it on your resume. So I would say definitely get into a lab, see if you like it. See if it’s something that sparks the passion in you.

And then for first year PhD I’d just advise keeping balance. Self care and your research do not have to be mutually exclusive. One does not have to suffer for the other. I think it’s kind of been this long-standing thing that the typical grad student is miserable and so tired but I don’t think so. I don’t think that is the truth at all and it doesn’t have to be. I would say to prioritise your self-care and prioritise your research, and you can do both. I fully, wholeheartedly believe that you can do both.

(Q) What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?

My Instagram is @modascientist and that’s probably the best place to get in touch with me. And I’m definitely always happy to answer science questions or general questions. Send a message or leave a comment, or you could also email me through there.

Aicha’s Instagram account also features sustainable fashion, for those interested.

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