Losing good students to bio

My background is physics.  I eventually bridged this over to the applied world and medicine, but having a good foundation makes it possible to do anything.  Each student has to be theoretically solid and capable of getting their hands dirty when the research inevitably goes applied.  Each summer I go through the same recruiting exercise where I try to recruit very theoretically sound students.  This summer is no different than the rest in that I try to create a diverse lab with talented students on the theoretical side, computational side, and experimental side.  I’m especially hurting for an experimental person.  Especially someone more on the biology side.  But because of the nature of the work, they have to have a good physics background.  These don’t always go hand-in-hand.  Bio people want to do bio, and typically don’t have the most solid background in math or physics.  On top of this, I haven’t been happy with the lack of gender diversity lately, and want to hold my lab as an example.

Now begins my big issue: I have found a couple female students that are great theoretically, but want to do bio.  As a lot of people know, there is a general interest of women in biologically based research.  My lab does this, but not like the hardcore bio labs running blots and transgenic experiments day-and-night.  So I’m having trouble recruiting the students I want because they want more bio or maybe because they didn’t study enough math as an undergrad.  So for the first time, I’ve decided to relax my requirements and basically pull in a student from a more unfocused discipline (like bioengineering) that can maybe do a little of a lot of different fields.  This allows me to get a female student that is willing to dabble with a little variety.  I’m not happy with this, but I’ll make due.  One of my initiatives has been to get female students into more math and physics with sprinkles of biology rather than the other way around since these fields are sorely lacking.  I’ve noticed some uptick, but I’m definitely not happy with my progress.

On the personal side of things, I was having a solid couple of months, and now I am nauseous all the time.  This needs to end now.


4 thoughts on “Losing good students to bio

  1. My work is more disciplinary than yours (I do theory and computation, no experiment) and even I have had to make peace with the fact that a typical student won’t be equally good at everything. The very best ones are great at math and physics as well as coding, but most aren’t. I’d say a majority can be brought to decent levels of competence in terms of coding, and some can even excel at it, but those who are really talented for the more theoretical part of the work, who really understand the math at a deep level and can have nontrivial ideas as well as execute them, those people are few and far between. When I get one of them in the group, I don’t give them tasks that amount to code development or anything else that others can do; I have delicious (and really hard) projects for them that the other more populous class simply can’t tackle, no matter how much I wish for it.

    Maybe classifying project in terms of key versus satellite skills would help? Sure, everyone should be able to understand theory and code a little, but I definitely know people who have golden hands in the lab, just great intuition working with physical systems and troubleshooting, yet can’t do much more than very elementary calculus to save their life. Perhaps allowing for specialization (and composing teams of differently gifted students work together) would be a way to move things forward faster with an average crop of students.

    I usually have 1 (2 if I’m lucky) really strong people who are deep thinkers, the rest must be motivated and hard-working, but their success depends highly on me tailoring their projects to their skill set and interests. If you do the latter well, you can get a lot of mileage from average-adjacent students.

    Making peace with the fact that most students aren’t and will never be my clones (aptitude, interests, etc) and that I have to meet them where they are and adapt projects to them made a big difference in my long-term mentoring success and my own level of stress.

    In gravid news, how far along are you? Summer pregnancies are really uncomfortable. Hang in there!


    • The satellite skill classification is a great idea, but my projects aren’t large enough to be able to split them up like that (except one), so most of the students have to be able to spread themselves. I’m afraid I will end up catering the project to the student rather than the way I prefer.

      Almost 7 months in and hot and uncomfortable every second of every day. I’m already planning how to disconnect while staying connected since it’s tough to do nearly everything. This needs to end. Now.


  2. I’ve seen this especially in the program that I run for high school students. All/most of the females are much more interested in the bio side. Though I did bring in one student who came in open minded and took a real shining to working with a computational physicist; I thought that was really great. I also have some skepticism in general taking on undergrad students who are planning to go into medicine but are “looking for research experience.” (We do materials science, with very little “crank turning”). They tend to look at the research position as something to put on their CV, amidst ten other things they are trying to do and divide their time between, versus actually investing themselves passionately in the opportunity (which they are really fortunate to be receiving). So I usually end up turning them down… or rather… giving them a couple of hoops to jump through before committing, which they usually end up not following through with. This is somewhat unfortunate, because some (not all) of these students are very bright/talented. Often, I end up taking less book smart or traditionally ambitious students who get into research and realize that it’s actually pretty awesome and they work their butts off and are extremely loyal and committed. Talent is hit or miss.

    I have a grad student who is talented both experimentally and theoretically. He is a gem. The rest fall somewhere in between.

    I think the difference between you and xyk is that some of the bio-oriented students may not be able to do (or want to do) physics/math AT ALL (elementary calculus would be a stretch…). (vs an experimental/theoretical physicist).

    What about Chemistry students? That is my background (I am in a Physics dept now). Chemists are generally strong experimentalists, but some at least also have some physics/math chops. It’s kind of the middle ground between the female-dominated bio side and male-dominated physics side. Chemistry students come in both genders and tend to be interested in both aspects. They may not REALIZE they are interested in your field, but it’s probably a more lucrative area of research to go into than some of their other options (big pharma, analytical chem, etc…). I was never interested in bio, because as I saw it it was all about memorizing things (because this is how it is taught), but now that I’m mature, I actually CARE about the science of it and find it super interesting and could see returning to it.


    • I did have a chem student early on that left with their MS (my troublesome student). They were very productive in a specific role. The problem is I need a little more focus on continuum mechanics and the chem students are just a little lacking. But for bio work the chem backgrounds have been great! I just wish there was a way to show the students that the bio is relatively easy to learn (at least from my experience) but physics is tough


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