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The Petri Dish featuring Dr. Petra Levin

This week on The Petri Dish we caught up with Dr. Petra Levin, Co-Director of Plant and Microbial Biosciences here at WashU. Not only is she an experienced mentor and scientist, but she is also an innovator of education, working to generate graduate student courses which seamlessly bleed into the graduate skill building. I invited Petra to The Petri Dish for her overall expertise. Here’s what we talked about.

Q: How do you make sure the science you’re doing is the right thing?

P: Think relevancy. Am I heading down a road with only one path that is only relevant to me, or can the information gathered be applicable to other organisms, diseases, etc? Are there more paths I can take, or is this one a single lane highway going in one direction? You want to think of foundational questions that have greater applicability. This is NOT easy, so it is important not to be discouraged!

Q: What can I do to find these types of questions?

P: Read the literature broadly, not just in your specific area. Look for interesting, unanswered questions. Find something that catches your eye and see if you can fit that puzzle piece into other puzzles.

Q: When should I contact someone about a potential Post Doc?

P: I recommend sending emails to potential post doc PIs, a year out from you expected thesis date. It gives the PI time to plan for your arrival, both funding- and experiment-wise. That said, as a graduate student should always be thinking about what you want to do for your future career. Keep notes of researchers whose work you really like. See a good talk? Write down their name! You can refer to these notes, when you contact them about a potential position in their lab. (PIs really love it when someone remembers their talks or reads papers from their group!) Remember that you aren’t limited to the field that you did your PhD work in, so look broadly.

Q: How do you get the attention of PIs at conferences?

P: The rule in my lab is that if you go to a conference, you have to present (talk, poster, etc).  Not only does this give you a chance to practice your communication skills, it makes networking much easier. Giving a poster? It is completely fine to contact a PI, to say you liked their talk/research/whatever and that you’re giving a poster and you’d love to show them your work. Pro Tip: The less text on your poster, the more likely someone will want to stop by to look at it.

Q: What is your favorite Ginger Beer recipe?

P: This one – it’s really easy and delicious! I double the ginger (yum) and tried both with and without Cream of Tartar (saw no difference).

Q: What about sourdough bread?

P: This one – If you’ve got a cast iron pot use that – makes the bread really nice and chewy.

Final thoughts from Petra: Don’t judge your worth by where you publish and don’t judge the quality of a paper by the citation index of the journal it’s in!

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