Dr. Gregory Hannon, Professor, Watson School of Biological Sciences, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Transcribed by Erica Anderson
Dr. Pola Rosen, Education Update (PR): What would you like to tell us about your research?
Dr. Gregory Hannon, Professor, Watson School of Biological Sciences (GH): I run a large, and perhaps somewhat unruly, research lab. We have a diversity of interests, which grow out of the biology of small regulatory RNAs, non-coding RNAs, and we look at the roles of these RNAs in the protection of germ cell genomes, from sort-of parasitic genetic elements. We look at the roles of non-coding RNAs in a variety of cancers, and then we build tools based on this regulatory system that allow us to look for potentially novel targets for cancer therapy.
PR: What is the hope on the horizon, for some of the solutions to cancer, particularly breast cancer and pancreatic cancer, which we know is a silent killer?
GH: I think that as we learn more and more about their genetic complexities, about the various genes upon which they depend for survival, the prospects for turning these into manageable chronic conditions improves. I don’t see that this is a problem that we’re going to solve in the next few years — it’s a challenge that because of the complexity is going to persist for some time.
PR: Can you tell us something about the graduate school and how many students come through the program? And I know it’s one of the premiere programs and a most unusual one for a place like this to offer.
GH: This is an unusual graduate program. It’s really founded upon the conviction — really Jim Watson’s conviction — that the term of graduate education was taking too long, that you were taking excited, young students coming out of undergraduate school and essentially beating them into submission through 10 years of a graduate grind and leaving them without that burning enthusiasm that they had for science when the started graduate school. And essentially what Jim thought was that if we designed an innovative program that was really a curriculum designed to graduate students in four years, and accelerate their progress toward scientific independence, then we can not only apply this training to the most talented group of students to create the leaders of science for the future, but also produce students that exited the program with this tremendous upward trajectory and energy and were able to maintain through this short but really intense graduate school.
PR: Is that the distinguishing feature of the program here, that it’s short, intense, and people are able to leave with their credentials?
GH: I think that there are a lot of distinguishing features. I think that that’s one defining feature. Another defining feature is that we focus much more on teaching students how to be scientists, how to think and behave as scientists, to teach them how to formulate scientific questions, how to answer those questions, how to behave ethically as a scientist. We focus on these things much more than focusing on the transfer of information. Scientific information is really growing at an explosive rate and I think that the critical skills are learning how to learn, learning how to manage that information, how to assimilate that information and use it for the purpose of answering questions that you’re interested in. We have much more of a focus on that than teaching students biochemistry and genetics. We have to do those basics to some degree, but our mission is really to teach these students how to spend a lifetime of learning as a scientist.
PR: Well isn’t this place unique, compared to a university, that offers students some labs, and mostly courses given by academics. Here students can actually be in a laboratory all the time. Isn’t that a unique feature?
GH: No, I think that all of the graduate programs in the biomedical sciences that train students in the areas in which we train students, are focused on a practical education in being a scientist. The defining principal of being a Ph.D. in the biosciences is to do an important original piece of work. So I think that all programs, especially toward the final years of graduate school, have students as essentially full-time scientists. The difference here is that we try to compress the upfront part of the curriculum, the time that you spend in coursework, the time that you spend formulating your thesis project. We try to have those components of the program confined to about the first year, whereas they may stretch into the third or fourth year in other programs. That’s one of the main ways in which we accelerate the timeline for graduate education.
PR: It seemed to me on getting a tour of Cold Spring Harbor Lab today, that this is really a Mecca for learning. There are thousands of scientists who come from all over the world, and there are a continuous series of conferences here. Wouldn’t the graduate students benefit from that?
GH: Well, they do tremendously. This is a small place — we tend to have rather focused areas of scientific interest. But those are augmented by the fact that we have very diverse meeting programs and we have diverse course programs, which are meant for postgraduate students. Even though the Watson School has been running for — I think this is our 11th year — the history of education and teaching at Cold Spring Harbor is actually much longer. And the tradition of innovation that we’ve brought to postgraduate courses, to meetings programs, that same spirit of innovation is what we’ve brought to graduate education. In fact, we’ve become a model for education at a lot of different graduate institutions in the U.S. now.
PR: I understand that you have a two-tier level of mentoring. Can you explain that?
GH: Every Ph.D. student has a thesis mentor, irrespective of where you are. And that is the person with whom you formulate your thesis project and who helps to direct your thesis research. What we’ve added to that is an academic mentor whose job is less to insure that your thesis project is on track and to make sure you do the science that you need to do to get your Ph.D. Their job is much more the intellectual development of the student, and to make sure that through their interactions with the scientific community, interactions with scientists outside, that they develop as a scientist. And also to provide a balance to the guiding hand of their scientific development, to provide in some ways a check and balance on the thesis mentor, to make sure that the needs of the students are always at the forefront.
PR: So should that two-tier system be implemented in other places? Because it sounds like a terrific system.
GH: Well it works well for us. And I do think that it is generally a good idea, that it’s a generally good innovation in school. And different students benefit from it to different degrees and use it to different degrees. So I don’t think that every student needs the two-tier mentoring, but every student benefits from the possibility of taking advantage of the two-tier mentoring.
PR: Well is there anything else you’d like to tell us about this wonderful program that you helped to establish?
GH: The only thing that I would say about it is that we tend to be a highly selective program. We train a very small number of students per year. And we try to be sensitive to the fact that the biomedical sciences are probably overtraining students at the moment. And it’s difficult to sustain the enterprise of graduate education in biomedical sciences at the rate we’re training students such that they can go on and do postgraduate work as post-docs and then achieve faculty positions. And I think it’s important to recognize that small and highly selective programs like this are really focused on training graduate students to become leaders for the next generation of science, much more so than growing a base of graduate students that can sort of serve the needs of the community here.
PR: So what you’re saying is that overtraining does not really do the scientific community much good?
GH: And the graduate students even less so.
PR: Because it just takes too long and then we’re going to lose them?
GH: Well, I think that we’re seeing a trend in the sciences right now of having students completing their graduate education and having more trouble finding positions as say, postdoctoral fellows. Postdoctoral fellows are facing a much tighter job market. And part of this is driven by the economy. The fact that a lot of programs evolved their training strategies during a time when the NIH budget was doubling, and now the NIH budget is flat, in fact declining in terms of the levels to which they’re funding grants. And I think it’s incumbent upon us as educators to adjust to that and to make sure that we don’t train more students than the system can sustain. #