At my undergraduate graduation, I sat next to my roommate, classmate, and long-time friend. I sat behind my neighbor, the EMT and pre-med who came to my aid when I dislocated my knee. A few rows down I could see my labmate and perpetual study partner. Together, we would wave to our PI, with whom we had spent several summers wrangling stress mechanisms in a hard-to-culture bacterium.
The familiarity of my colleagues and community was a defining experience of my undergraduate education. Long nights studying organic synthesis reactions were made easier by the 9PM study sessions lead by our tireless professors. Field expeditions were more adventurous knowing that your classmates had your back – and a spare pair of waders. And, most especially, publications were made sweeter by knowing it was nearly every author’s first.
As I transitioned into my graduate career at a public, high-activity research institution, I was reminded of lessons I learned from my undergraduate PI: pay it forward, think out loud, have courage, celebrate the small wins, and have a piece of chocolate if it all falls apart. They echoed in my head as I adjusted to a bigger place with bigger science and bigger expectations. I distinctly remember being so nervous that I forgot to tare the scale before measuring out sodium bicarbonate in front of my new rotation advisor. And yet, my feet carried me forward, unwilling to cower at the anxieties of growth. I had trained for this, but not in the way you might think.
My former university is a PUI, or, primarily undergraduate institution. There, in the absence of graduate students and postdocs, labs are driven almost entirely by novice student researchers along with their PIs. Historically these institutions are considered to confer lesser training, with reviewers citing an “uncompetitive background” in predoctoral grant reviews or graduate admission applications. To some, this is an earned stigma. But having now held a pipette at a PUI, large state university, and Ivy League institution, I am here to argue for the little guy.
Labs at PUIs depend on close peer collaboration and quick development of leadership in older students. The spirit of mentorship that is so lauded in large R1 labs must begin somewhere. For me, it began here. I gained confidence, slowly but reliably, without the threat of being discouraged by science that was echelons above my vantage point. My footing became steady enough to teach others, bringing them into the fold rather than adding to the gatekeeping that can plague schools with highly competitive and, thus, limited undergraduate research opportunities. Having my own project and coming up in a learning environment that was highly collaborative, yet self-propelled, instilled a sense of independence and ownership over my work. Reflectively, I see this system as ideal for shaping students into young scientists who are well prepared to move on to the rigorous and deeply self-driven exercise that is a PhD and the beginning of a research career.
Even beyond my anecdotal experience, PUIs succeed in filling gaps left by large, often anonymizing, public universities. Training of undergraduates to be able researchers is likely to be a specific tenet of a PUI research program, rather than a byproduct of a research ecosystem already in progress. Trainees engage with the full spectrum of the scientific process from start to finish: hypothesis generation, experimental design, data collection, interpretation, and publication. Beyond being a desirable training environment, this process precedes valuable contributions to advancing scientific knowledge. Publications coming from PUIs are essential to the fabric of most disciplines, including yours.
The fuss about scientific pedigree remains an elitist one, with a logical base that is shaky at most. It contributes to a culture of insider-ism that stifles creativity and subjugates accountability. But in a profession as historied as ours, there are ideological realities and functional realities. The ideological reality presents an environment in which anyone from anywhere can rise. I still believe this to be in reach. But the functional reality remains that some criteria are baked into our definition of quality. So for now, I encourage you to take pause before brushing past an institution whose name you don’t recognize immediately. Consider what it may have taken for that scientist to get there and the room they have left to rise. Consider that a perceived weakness in resumé might have deeply shaped their strengths. Consider that where we come from has both nothing and everything to do with where we are going.
Leah Cabo is a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh studying developmental disruption in the congenital transmission of Toxoplasma gondii. Follow Leah on Twitter at @lf_cabo.