Keeping Science “Young and Full of Fire”

Prolonged graduate education hampers promising careers, says Gregory Hannon. Better to give scientists hands-on experience early.
  • Transcript


Question: What opportunities in your science education were you most grateful for?

Gregory Hannon: Well, I came from a very small town.  I had very good and very dedicated science teachers in high school who really went far beyond the call, in a way, to make additional science available after school hours, etc., doing things like science competitions that were held at local colleges, things like this and even making available some very basic college science courses during our later years of high school.  Going on to undergraduate, I went to Case Western Reserve, a private university in Cleveland, with the idea that I was probably going to do medicine.  The first semester I was there, I needed a job and talked to my undergraduate advisor who said, “Hey, why don’t you come to work in my lab.”  And it took about a week to decide that that’s what I really wanted to do.  So, for me, and I think for many, the turning point comes as an undergraduate student when you become exposed to the world of scientific research.  It’s not something that a lot of people are intimately familiar with, it’s not a job that people see or encounter. 

And so, I think the key opportunity is to give undergraduates the chance to come into the lab, to provide them exposure to what a life in academic sciences is really like.  Graduate education is something that at Cold Spring Harbor, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.  And really, Jim Watson pushed very hard about a decade ago to encourage us to fight against the length of graduate training, which was increasing to what he felt were ridiculous timeframes.  So, a seven-year PhD of a student essentially not becoming an independent scientist until well into their 30’s was something that he thought completely inappropriate. 

And so we’ve really tried to essentially reinvent graduate education in a way that allows biologists to get a PhD degree in a short amount of time; four years is our goal.  We tend to meet it by and large over the ten years that our graduate program has been running; our average is about four years and three months.  And in fact, I graduated a student yesterday in 3 ½ years.  And so the notion of bringing people into research early and then giving them an opportunity to do independent work while they’re young and full of fire is, I think, a really critical issue that the community is trying to address.

Recorded on February 9, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen