Brad Morrison, a third-year graduate student in the Ph.D. program in the Molecular and Cell Biology Department, nearly missed out on what he would later describe as “one of the best opportunities ever.”
The U.T. Austin graduate, who now lives in Plano and enjoys a fifteen-minute roundtrip commute to campus, said that while U.T. Dallas may not have been his first choice for graduate school, it was the right choice.
“I was working at U.T. Southwestern right out of college as a research technician at the time and was seriously considering going into a graduate program. And after weighing my options, I quickly realized that UTD was the right choice for me.
“Initially, I was just looking to obtain my masters,” Brad said. “I enrolled in a couple of classes here – I still worked full-time at Southwestern – and did pretty well in them and really enjoyed my experiences in those courses. Talking with instructors in the department, I decided to go ahead and apply for the Ph.D. program here and was fortunate enough to be accepted and that’s how I got into the program.
“I kind of started part-time and decided this is the place that I really wanted to be,” he said.
It begins to add up
Brad continues to work hard in pursuit of his Ph.D.
“I like the program here,” he said. “It’s really challenging. It’s convenient. I was looking to stay in the Metroplex because my family lives here, so that was a big plus.
“I like that UTD has such a broad range of research interests within the department, everything from structural biophysical chemistry to cell biology.
“It’s a pretty broad range. I didn’t know what area I wanted to go into when I began in the program so that was definitely something that helped to direct me. Many of the researchers here are very prominent in their fields as well and that was another plus. It was comforting to know that I could go to a well-funded lab and that that wouldn’t be a problem.”
So, ah, what's up Doc?
Right about now you’re probably wondering what it is that Brad is studying. Let’s get to the science, shall we?
“What the D’Mello lab does is, we look at apoptosis, which is programmed cell death in neurons, and we look at ways to basically prevent apoptosis in neurons," Brad said.
Santosh D'Mello, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular and cell biology with a joint appointment with the School of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, is Brad's principal investigator, or P.I.
“My particular project looks at a protein that we believe is a neuroprotective protein. It helps protect neurons against this unwanted cell death. Right now I’m using a host of molecular biology techniques to actually 1.) prove that it is protective, and 2.) show how it is protecting.
“We look at over-expressing the protein in cells to determine the cells’ reaction to this increased level of the protein that we are studying. We also look at protein-protein interactions, which are very important to determine the mechanism by which it is protecting. And that’s basically it. There are countless ways of approaching the problem, but those are the basic themes: to study the protein-protein interactions as well as prove that your factor is indeed doing what you think it is doing.”
How, specifically, might that be achieved, you ask?
“We actually use neurons harvested from rats. So we experiment on actual primary culture – actual neurons – so it’s not in a completely artificial system. It’s much more practical and easier to do than to try to recapitulate a neuron in a test tube,” Brad said.
“It seems that the research affects many different areas,” he continued, “so there are many diseases where apoptosis has been implicated in the progression of the disease. Cancer, Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s, ALS – just a host of diseases this has been implicated in – and the applications of this research can extend beyond the paradigm we are working on. I thought that could be a very useful thing to be involved in something that can teach me different techniques, which can be used in different ways in different fields.”
Given good advice
Brad had to first seek the advice of his academic advisor to help him set his course of study.
“[Earnest] Hannig [Ph.D.] basically told me what courses to take and helped me pick a rotation lab. I met with him throughout the semester. Not strictly course work, there are a lot of funding issues that you deal with through him.
“Once you pass your first year of core courses, you select a thesis committee – you select three and then three are random – for a total of six members. You really rely on those people outside of your principle investigator – 95 percent of any questions you’re going to have are probably answered by your P.I., your boss. And then if there is anything that your lab does not routinely do or any direction that maybe your P.I. might not be as familiar with as one of your committee members, you go talk to one of your committee members. They evaluate you but they are also there to help you along with your research.
"I have gone to Drs. Steven Goodman and Jeff DeJong – they are on my committee – for a couple of things for their particular areas of specialty and expertise. Dr. Goodman does a lot of mass spectroscopy. DeJong, he’s just a transcription expert, so many things involving transcription I’ll go talk to him about and ask questions and maybe he can enlighten me and give me some good approaches to tackle a problem."
Brad’s services to the lab come at a cost. Ultimately, it becomes a win-win situation for the grad student as well as the department.
“The department will pay your salary in exchange for being a Teaching Assistant in a course that the department offers. The work and the type of work depend on the course itself. Dr. Hannig is the one who will make the assignments.
“If you are fortunate enough to have already met your requirement, which is two long semesters, and if you are in a lab that is willing and has enough money to justify it, they can put you on a Research Assistantship, in which you don’t have to allocate so much of your time helping out with courses. When you are full-time in the research lab, you’re paid not so much by the department but actually by the grant money of your PI. The plus side to that is you spend more time in the lab and you can get more done toward the particular project you’re working on,” Brad said.
Are we there yet?
When asked what he described as “the most frequent question I receive,” he was ready.
How long does it take to obtain a Ph.D.?
“That’s an excellent question. It depends from person to person. A lot of it is luck and a lot of it is just hard work. If you are fortunate enough for your project to take off and you get really good data and you are able to publish a couple of times, you can easily graduate within four years. The average is probably five years. It is not unusual for some people to go six years. Some people go a little bit longer than six years. Some have gone seven or eight years.
“The main requirement after your official obligations, it comes to publishing your research in a peer-reviewed journal. This is really the rate-limiting step in graduation for most candidates, getting that publication. And quite often, even after you get that publication, your committee might not feel your research is strong enough to graduate, so they may keep a little longer to see you refine your skill more and become a better researcher in their eyes. So that’s not uncommon either, to have your committee feel that you’re not quite ready.
“Myself, I’m looking to post-doc, which is basically working as a research assistant to a principal investigator and do that for two, three or four years and then hopefully obtain grant money myself and venture off to start my own lab and eventually interview around for faculty positions and get hired on somewhere,” he said.
- Updated: February 6, 2006