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About Justin Lowenthal and Ethan Cottrill

Justin Lowenthal is a seventh-year MD-PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. His PhD research is in biomedical engineering, co-mentored between two advisors and two different labs, and centers on using stem cells, genetics, developmental biology, and tissue engineering techniques to model cardiac development and genetic heart disease. Prior to medical school, Justin completed a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Yale University and a certificate in bioethics at the National Institutes of Health.

Ethan Cottrill is a fifth-year MD-PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. His PhD research is in biomedical engineering and centers on developing new bone graft substitute materials. Prior to medical school, Ethan completed a bachelor of science in chemistry from Ohio University and a master of science in education from Johns Hopkins University.

Introduction

Research rotations, where early graduate students get an abbreviated but immersive experience in a lab that is under their consideration for PhD thesis work, are an exciting part of MD-PhD training. Because in many cases everything is suddenly new again—the environment, the people, the research—research rotations often create a “honeymoon” period for the budding scientist, marked with significant growth, fulfillment, and learning. These typically 6- to 10-week experiences allow early graduate students to appreciate and absorb the science and culture of discovery and mentorship in a lab without the responsibility of committing to the lab or dedicating oneself to a project. With that said, rotation students can make significant contributions to the lab, though the weeks- to months-long time frame obviously poses some constraints on what can be achieved, and productivity should not be the primary goal.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

  • Before and during a rotation, prioritize collecting the data you need to determine if it is the right home for you and your PhD training over productivity.

  • Conversations with program directors and upper-year students, as well as thorough searching of available online and local resources, can help you identify potential mentors and labs in which to rotate.

  • Make sure to consider both objective measures of a lab’s success and subjective experiences in that lab—both your own during the rotation, and the experiences of those who are currently in the lab and those who may have chosen to go elsewhere.

  • Have many conversations and ask many questions during your rotation, inside and outside the lab, to get the most out of the experience.

  • Ending a lab rotation can be awkward, but it is important to be transparent, respectful, and clear, expressing gratitude for the experience and your plan moving forward regardless of your decision.

The next chapter in this book focuses on picking your advisor and lab following your research rotations. Here, we break down four primary subtopics: 1) the why, when, who, where, and how of research rotations; 2) maximizing value during the rotation; 3) ending a research rotation; and 4) ...

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