As part of the Drennan lab, I get to do chemistry that my undergraduate classes didn’t have time to delve into. Using metals and free radicals to do chemistry opens up a whole new world of chemical reactions. I’m working on a metal-containing protein that’s only just been discovered, and there’s so much to learn about its fundamental biological function. I think that’s why basic research is so appealing to me; you never know where the work will take you, or the impacts it could have on human health later on.
The energy at MIT is unparalleled. Whether it’s gene expression, cell division, or regeneration, people here are jazzed about their research. The Burge Lab, where I work, combines high-throughput bench techniques with computational biology to study gene expression and RNA processing. With this combination of skills, I can ask complex questions and push the frontiers of knowledge in my field. Awesome research and students who are always down to nerd out about nature make MIT a great place for grad school.
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.