I chose MIT Biology because of the breadth of labs — I could study microbiology or molecular biology within the same department. Gene-Wei Li’s lab had a perfect mix of both. Gene is one of the smartest researchers I’ve ever met while still being incredibly humble. His was a new lab, looking at biological questions from a very different perspective than other labs. We’re asking fundamental questions about protein production, with consequences for cell survival and human health at large.
Not many people know that MIT has a thriving biophysics community. It’s a mix of mechanical engineers, chemists, biologists, and physicists. There are specific course requirements, and we go on retreats and participate in seminars to share our research and discuss collaborations. I really enjoy thinking about physical principles and how they apply to biological problems, and the methods we use Martin lab are incredibly visual. You can literally see a fruit fly embryo fold, which is both informative and aesthetically pleasing.
MIT Biology stood out to me because the research interests of the faculty are so diverse. My background is in biochemistry, and I expected to be forced to choose between studying that or exploring other realms of biology — but MIT Biology doesn’t draw those distinctions, and instead incorporates many disciplines into one department. As a result, I’ve discovered new interests in plant development and genetics. I was drawn to Jing-Ke Weng’s lab in particular because his calm and open attitude made for a harmonious research environment.
MIT Biology really values its graduate students, and many of our department-wide events are student-driven. Even the recruitment weekend, where accepted students are invited to campus, is run entirely by graduate students. I found it really reassuring that the department entrusts its students with so much responsibility, which I’ve found to be true in my classes and in lab as well. The professors treat you as an equal and give you a lot of freedom to pursue your interests.
One of the main reasons I chose MIT Biology was because I wanted teaching experience. You have many opportunities to mentor undergraduates and summer students, and as part of the program you serve as a teaching assistant for at least two classes. If you face challenges as a graduate student, there are also plenty of resources — there were tutoring services that I used my first year, which helped a lot, and the professors here are very accessible.
It’s important to work in a lab where you have the freedom to think without worrying about being wrong. In the Vander Heiden lab, we’re using new techniques to study cancer cell metabolism, so there is a lot of freedom to explore unexpected findings and follow interesting leads. We try to keep an open mind because there’s probably no one thing that cancer cells depend on. Everyone’s work builds together to form a cumulative understanding.
I was drawn to the MIT Biology first year program because you to get to know your classmates in a formalized community that extends well beyond your graduate career. I chose the Cheeseman lab so I could combine cell biology and biochemistry to ask mechanistic questions about cell division. Everyone works on distinct but related projects, so I knew I would have an area within the lab that was mine. It’s both exciting and challenging because no one else is thinking about your projects to the extent that you are.
I’m incredibly grateful for the first-year program, because dedicating the fall semester solely to taking classes gave me a background in subjects I didn’t take in college. I was really into protein biochemistry when I first arrived at MIT, and was surprised when I fell in love with a discipline that was completely different from my initial interests. I’d never taken genetics before, and I ended up joining the Kim lab — a genetics lab.
I knew I wanted a broad program because I realized my interests in biology might expand beyond biophysics. I’d had the chance to meet professors and current grad students during preview weekend, which gave me a sense of the research possibilities and made the department seem more personal. Since then, I’ve experienced continuous support from my mentors and fellow students, especially when I’ve faced challenges in my research. Not all programs have that ethos, and that’s what makes MIT biology so special.
I was an MSRP student back in summer 2005, so returning as a grad student I was excited about the resources and faculty. I came in with a background in chemistry, and transitioning to biology was very hard. But in the end I was extremely satisfied with my training. I’d advise grads to get to know your classmates; those connections will be invaluable later on. Now as an Assistant Professor, I’d encourage students to interact with faculty and take advantage of all the resources that MIT has to offer.
Kevin Eggan PhD ’02
Jaenisch Lab ● Professor, Harvard University
Someone once told me, ‘If you want to become as successful as your scientific heroes, follow the paths they took.’ For me, in almost every instance, that included getting a PhD from MIT. I was exposed to cutting-edge technologies and immersed in an environment where new inventions are made every day. The work I contributed to as part of the Jaenisch lab was foundational in many respects, and paved the way for my own lab to later become the first to generate patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
One of my first recollections of graduate school at MIT was being called into a room with all the department heads to justify why I wanted to change departments. Salvodore Luria, Jack Buchanan, and Cyrus Levinthal were seated while I stood making my case. It was a bit intimidating but they accepted my reason. At the time, MIT had divided biology into several small departments, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Biophysics. I had applied to and been accepted to Biochemistry thinking that Boris Magasanik would…