September 27, 2010


By Danielle Miranda

Advice from 2nd year Mayo Clinic Biochemistry and Molecular Biology graduate student, Amanda Butler. Amanda is in Dr. Nicole Murray's lab conducting her thesis research on  "Determining the role of Protein Kinase C zeta in Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma" at the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, FL campus.  

1. How did you choose your career? Was this an easy or hard process for you?  If you struggled, how did you overcome these struggles? When I was a freshman in high school I was first introduced to the molecular mechanisms of cancer cells and became fascinated with how much they resemble stem cells. Since then I have always wanted to perform research using these two types of unique cells in parallel with the hope of discovering a more efficient therapeutic target. Throughout my undergraduate career I performed research with microorganisms and flirted with the idea of becoming a medical doctor. When it came time to apply for medical school, I realized that as I filled out my applications all I found myself writing about was research. As I re-read my personal statements I was thrown back to my seat in freshmen biology and began thinking about how my ideas about cancer had evolved over the years. Before I knew it all my medical school applications became trash and I began putting my thoughts on paper and manipulating these ideas into personal statements for some of the top cancer research institutions in the nation.      

2. What kind of training, both formal and informal, did you receive to prepare you for your career? If applicable, how did you select where to attend graduate school? How did you choose what additional training to pursue and how did you choose where to do it? Most of my training thus far was done as an undergraduate student at a small, private liberal arts college in the middle of NY State. The size of my institution made it possible for me to take on three majors: biology, chemistry, and mathematics, which allowed me to develop an adequate tool box that has proven extremely useful throughout my young career. I was also given the opportunity to begin research as a freshman and continued that research until the completion of my undergraduate degree. As a researcher I was provided with opportunities for internships and was able to present my research at some of the largest scientific conferences in the US. Choosing a graduate institution to continue my training was not an easy task. I was able to narrow my choices down to Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. I intently reviewed the pros and cons of each institution and the Mayo Clinic came up on top for a number of reasons, one being the extensive collaborative environment of the Clinic and the cross-talk between the MDs and PhDs within the institution. I have only just begun my second year of graduate school and although I hope my decisions about where my future will take me become clearer I fear that will not be the case. I suppose time will tell.

3. Do you have experience in research?  Fortunately, I have always had extremely understanding and caring mentors who let me work at my own pace. Since I am self-motivated and driven I often worked efficiently and was never hesitant to stay as long as I needed to in order to complete all my experiments each day. I believe that the most competitive part of my training thus far has been getting into the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program here at the Mayo Clinic. I am convinced that opportunity along with my hard work as an undergrad allowed me to be a competitive applicant when applying to graduate schools.

4. What do you think helped you in getting accepted into graduate school?  If you had any setbacks, how did you deal with them? It took me 5 years to complete 3 majors at my undergraduate institution. When I entered college I did not anticipate having 3 majors and therefore it did take me longer than expected to complete my Bachelor’s degree. The setbacks I had throughout undergrad included overlapping courses and taking on several activities and research on top of my course work. I dealt with these minor setbacks by taking many of my mathematics courses as independent studies and becoming extremely proficient at managing my time. As I mentioned before I am only in my second year of graduate school so I still have a long road of training ahead of me.  

5. What advice would you give to someone interested in going into research? Make absolutely certain that you love it and there is nothing else you would rather be doing. As a researcher you will be putting in long hours, many difficult, many tedious, and many without any positive results. Through these rough times you always have to remind yourself that there is a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and all your hard work will pay off when that experiment finally goes the way you hypothesized and that you are, in a small way, advancing your field. 

6. What would you have done differently in preparing for your graduate career? I am not sure I would have done anything differently in preparing thus far. I feel very lucky that everything I have done up to this point has fallen into place but I will not be surprised if my career path takes an unexpected turn.

7. How do you like graduate school? Why? Is it what you imagined it would be? If not, how have you adapted? I enjoy what I do very much. There have been and will continue to be rough times throughout my training and future career, but when I find myself feeling down and questioning my  choice I simply ask myself what I would be doing if it was not research. I always arrive at the same answer: I love what I do, it is very difficult at times and is not a career for everyone but I am doing what I have been dreaming about doing since I was in 9th grade in high school, how many people can say that? Since I began research within the first year of college I knew what I was getting myself into when I began my graduate work thus it has been exactly what I have anticipated.

8. How do you achieve school: life balance? Is this easy or hard to do? How many hours do you typically work per week? The balance between life and school is a difficult balance to achieve. For me, and I am sure many researchers will agree, this balance fluctuates often. When things are going well in lab I find myself working long hours excited about the results of each experiment and not being able to wait until the next day to analyze results. During such periods I work anywhere between 65-75 hours a week. When things are not going as well as I would hope I cut back on my work hours and give myself some time to relax and spend time with friends. These times I refer to as ‘rejuvenation’ periods and I work about 45hours a week. 

9. What strategies have you figured out over time to help you succeed? In order to be successful I have found that you must get to know yourself and how you work. For me, if I have been trouble shooting an experiment for days on end and cannot seem to figure out why it is not working I will take a day or two break from that experiment and focus on others. When I return to trouble shooting I find that I am able to look at it in a new light and often figure out what the problem was. Thus I would have to say knowing when to take a step back and when to plunge forward is key to a successful career. 

10. How do you see your field changing in the next 5-10 years?My field changes every 5-10 days, let alone 5-10 years. You never really know what to expect. There is always going to be a new breakthrough discovery that will refocus everyone’s experiments, such as micro RNAs and tumor stem cells which seem to be the hot topic right now. I cannot even attempt to anticipate what my field will be like in 5-10 years, but I hope we will have made significant progress in the treatment of cancer by then. 

 11. Anything else you would like to share? Have FUN! Make a lot of friends; some within your field that know exactly what you are going through so you can lean on each other for support, and also so friends outside your field that you have a tough time talking to them about what you do on a day to day basis. I find that having this wide range of friends allows for encouragement and understanding when you need it, and a complete and total break from anything that has to do with your career when you need it, which you will. Also, do not be afraid to take time off, everyone needs a break!

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