A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life of a Graduate Student

By Kimberly Point du Jour, MD, PhD

Kimberly Point du JourAs any graduate student will tell you, a variety of forces influence your schedule so that no two days look exactly alike. Early in graduate school I balanced classes and seminars with experiments during my last rotation before picking a thesis lab. Now that my coursework is completed, I focus more on reading, planning experiments, writing grants, manuscripts and review articles with my PI, lab meetings, and of course actually gathering data. In addition, I always take advantage of one of the big strengths of the MD-PhD program at Columbia: the wealth of educational conferences available to the clinical and scientific community. These include invited speakers as well as faculty within the university. In a given week Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) may host Nobel Prize winners and Howard Hughes Investigators from around the country and the globe as well as major policy shapers like the Director of the National Institutes of Health.  Of course, no graduate program is complete without social activities and as a graduate student I network with faculty and fellow students from across the Medical Center at formal receptions, WISC (Women in Science at Columbia) events, and informal happy hours like the weekly Free Friday event held on the roof of Bard Hall. For me the best part of grad school is the flexibility (yet increased responsibility) afforded as I create my own schedule to accomplish my research and educational goals. Graduate school, like medical school, demands study and precision, but at CUMC I feel I have the support I need to complete and defend a successful thesis while maintaining a healthy life.

A Day in the Life During the First 1.5 Years

By Eduardo Perez-Torres

Eduardo PerezThe first year and a half are all classes (during the semester) and lab rotations (summers). During the semester, on any given day, I'd wake up around 8 or 9 and go to class. There's, of course, a lot of variety. The first semester is science catch-up (genetics, pharmacology, etc.) and anatomy, so every week, there'd be a 3 hour anatomy lab, which you'd do in groups of four. The following two semesters, classes are in blocks by system (cardio, psych, pulm, neuro, etc.) with tutorials where you learn to do physical exams once per week for four hours, again, in groups of four. A lot of MD-PhDs (myself included) also choose to do some PhD classes during the med school portion, and be done with most courses by the time we get to lab. Now, that sounds like a lot of class, but it's really not. It rounds out to about 4-5hr of class per day. Exams are about once per month, and it's all pass/fail so all of the students are extremely collaborative.

The summer before the program began, I rotated in a lab that studied Parkinson’s disease. Only about half of the incoming students in the class decide to rotate at this time, but I find that those who do not rotate, later regret that decision. Summer in NYC is wonderful and the campus is relaxed. This is also a great time to explore everything the city has to offer. I attended many Broadway shows that summer. Rotations are also a great chance to learn about graduate school, labs, and mentors at Columbia. In the summer after the first year of medical school, I rotated in a lab that studies ALS. I am currently doing a third rotation studying Alzheimer’s disease. Most students end up completing 1-2 rotations.

Every day after class come the extracurriculars. I perform in Bard Hall Players productions three times per year, so I have some time of rehearsal for that. I'm also in the a capella group, the Ultrasounds (original name for med school a capella, I know). We perform at an evening Coffeehouse (where med students perform dances, poetry, music, etc. and party out the night with free pizza and beer) once per month. I volunteer at the Gay Health Advocacy Project, where I do peer counseling for HIV testing 3 hours per week in the Morningside campus. Overall, I'd say it's been a fantastic time so far.

A Day in the Life

By Joshua Cook

Joshua CookThe chance to work in the Accili lab was one of the main reasons I was drawn to Columbia in the first place, and I have not been disappointed. The caliber of mind in the lab is unusually high, even in a field dominated by high-caliber minds. At first I felt quite daunted by this, but this challenge has forced me to grow exponentially as a scientist. I suppose it is part and parcel of the PhD process, but if only I knew when I began what I do now, thanks in large part to the questions and insights posed by my colleagues, I might have finished these projects a year ago.

First and foremost, I would like to thank Domenico Accili, my doctoral mentor extraordinaire, for guiding me through this entire process. It has been an unparalleled honor to be mentored by him, to be able to be counted among the ranks of the distinguished alumni of his group. It is no surprise to me now why he is universally considered one of the great pioneers of our field; whether liver, pancreas, adipose tissue, vascular endothelium, hypothalamus, or practically any other cell-type imaginable, Dr. Accili has made seminal contributions to our understanding of insulin action and diabetes. His intimate knowledge of each of these areas, each with a literature unto itself, is formidable to say the least, and therefore especially reassuring for me as a protégé. Moreover, I have always been drawn to mentors with a penchant for patience and good humor in order to offset the inevitable struggles attendant to the scientific method. Dr. Accili embodies this sense of sagacious serenity perhaps best of any of my advisors yet. Whenever I was convinced the sky was falling, he would do exactly what I needed: smile and remind me, based on his accumulated wisdom, that this too would pass. Indeed, he has always been indefatigably patient, always helping me to remember what is most important and what I should and should not expend emotional energy worrying about. I have especially also appreciated the historical perspective he brings to our work. Considering that the collective scientific memory extends back about 20 years or so before we begin repeating experiments that have already been done and forgotten, it is important to be able to call upon an advisor who has a much better memory than most and who also has an uncanny ability to meld cut-and-dry experimental results with the clinico-historical context from which they emerged. Dr. Accili has always inspired my own approach through his ability to bring the narrative arc of diabetes research to life.

A Day in the Life 
By Gary Peng

As a student in the PhD portion of the program, I spend the majority of my time working in the laboratory.  My research focuses on understanding mechanisms of disease mutations on ion channels, biological molecules that create pores in the plasma membrane of cells through which ions may flow.  The kind of ion channels I study underlie critical physiological processes, such as the cardiac electrical conduction system, allowing the heart to beat in a regular rhythm.  I am very grateful to be able to work in an extraordinarily supportive lab environment while studying basic science problems with relevance to human health.

During the entire PhD portion of my studies, as part of the “Clinical Competence Program” and the “Clinical Contact During the Lab Years” program, I have the opportunity to work with physician specialists to explore my clinical interests.  The program also allows me to refresh the clinical skills and knowledge I acquired prior to my PhD training.  I recently worked with neurologists in the EMG (electromyography) suite, where testing is done to help diagnose patients experiencing weakness.  I watched as a neurology fellow inserted an electrode into different muscles of a man experiencing weakness in his arms and recorded the electrical activity of their motor units.  The electrical activity became more frequent when the patient contracted his muscles.  Studying the electrical waveforms helped the neurologist determine whether the patient’s weakness resulted from a defect in his nerves or muscles.  For me, it was an amazing experience to connect human pathology with my research interests.  Electrical activity in skeletal muscles is largely mediated by ion channels, similar to the ones I study in the lab.  I was excited to see ion channels in action.  It was a meaningful moment where I found myself at the intersection between science and medicine, connecting my benchside interest with clinical diagnostic testing that may benefit patients.