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Wanted: Info on Virology career

Anton Scott Goustin asg at cmb.biosci.wayne.edu
Thu Aug 3 13:24:40 EST 1995

kmshannon at aol.com (KMShannon) wrote:
>Hello, I am a senior at the University of Oklahoma and plan to enter a
>career in Virology.  I would like correspondence from any Virologists >on the Internet.  Any and all suggestions about how to earn a Ph. D in
>Virology would be greatly appreciated.
>Thank you,
>Kevin Shannon

There are basic steps, each with different goals, I think:
1)  Getting your Ph.D. (or D.V.M.) and
2)  Doing a postdoctoral fellowship.

Getting your PhD or DVM:
Virology today is inseparable from molecular biology and immunology.
You will need a good training in molecular biology so that you can
have the tools necessary to attack your hypothesis as a postdoc and/or
researcher.  But these "tools" also include an understanding of the 
biology of the host.  Viruses don't grow on nutrient agar plates, but
on host cells.  They use their genes to subvert natural host physiology
to their advantage.  Moreover, they don't grow on target cells in RPMI
1640, but on target cells in a whole animal.  They must thus outsmart
the host's immune defenses, which are formidable if the virus is es-
tablished for a long time in the host population.  What I am suggesting
is of course quite difficult: mastery of two very complex fields (molec-
ular biology and immunology).  But such dual mastery will be necessary
if you contemplate being a faculty member, since science is only fun if
you have research funds, and research funds today go to those who can
integrate their fundamental questions about nature into the context of
a disease-related problem, particular with human relevance.  Funds are
tight in the US today, and will be tighter by the time you finish your
PhD probably.

Don't laugh at the idea of a DVM.  Harry Rubin (University of California
at Berkeley) has a DVM.  Two excellent institutions come to mind here:
Colorado State University and Ohio State University.  Both have excel-
lent vet schools with good virology going on there.  You will definitely
learn about whole animals there, an advantage which will place you over
those students who know only about tissue culture and virus in vitro.  It will be more difficult to get into one of those programs than into a
PhD program, but it offers the advantage that you can ply your wares as
a vet when you are done if the research market doesn't look favorable.
And don't forget that many viruses that plaque humans have additional
animal hosts, such as the hantaviruses and even the immunodeficiency
viruses such as HIV-2 (it is very closely related to simian immunodefi-
ciency virus SIV).

The object of graduate education is to publish enough to make you at-
tractive as a postdoc, but not so much that you lose the chance to ex-
plore your innate academic intellectual curiosity.  Thus, I recommend
a sound training at a good established institution for a PhD program,
rather than training at a high-profile research institute where the
grad students are often used as a cheap pair of hands.

The object of postdoctoral education is completely different.  During
these years (minimum of 2, up to 8 or more), you must bust ass at the
lab bench.  Publication record is the objective here, to USE what you
learned as a graduate student to probe problems that are not just pub-
lishable per se, but can get into some of the higher-profile journals
such as Journal of Virology, Nature, Molecular and Cellular Biology,
and Cell.  Publications in these sites will pique interest in your CV
by any faculty search committee in the US.

Choosing a graduate mentor is quite different than choosing a post-
doctoral lab site.  You don't know how to choose a problem at this
point, even if you knew how to do the basic routines of the research
lab (cloning, sequencing, raising and using monoclonal antibodies, etc).
Your graduate mentor will teach you not just how to trouble-shoot a
protocol in the lab, but how to think:  1) how to choose a problem that
is special, so as to create a niche for you in the research world, and
2) how best to approach that question with the resources (money, per-
sonnel, patient or animal resources) you have.  It's kind of like 
wilderness survival.  Of course, you must know basic things like first
aid, cooking, use of a compass and maps for navigation...but you will be
lost if you don't know when to trust your instincts, because your path
in the wilderness is by definition not well-travelled.  The successful
scientist learns via his/her graduate mentor about risk-taking, the balance between routine sure-bet projects and those that will make
the world say WOW!, about trusting one's own instincts, about finding
a niche (to avoid competition) and about basic ethical-moral issues of
personal integrity.  So you see, it's best to mentor under a seasoned
traveller who has the time to impart this wisdom than from the flashy
person who might make the NY Times Science Section.

Good luck!

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