Grad school survival tip from Dr. Joyce Schroeder: Be prepared to give your life to the lab. If you are reading this and are one of the hundreds of undergrads who know Dr. Schroeder through her fabulous Cancer Biology class (and if you haven’t taken her class, pause and ask yourself: why?) you’ll know that this was said with the wisest and kindest intention and that you should undoubtedly listen.
Dr. Schroeder, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, works on understanding the progression of and finding treatments for triple-negative breast cancer, a highly aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer with few viable treatments. She was recently awarded a patent for a drug that will help block the spread of breast cancer.
Dr. Schroeder is a world-class scientist.
But would you believe that she had no idea that graduate school even existed before she joined the second ever class of UBRP?
Dr. Schroeder is a first generation college student. “I wanted to do research when I started college, but had no idea how to do research,” she says and recounts how she went about trying to get involved in research. “I asked around and people said: I think you just go to peoples’ labs. And so I remember going through labs in the college of medicine and walking around and asking if anyone needed help,” she says with a laugh. “And of course the PI isn’t there, it’s just students so they are all wondering who I am and why I am in their lab.”
It wasn’t until a friend of hers had saw a flier in BioSciences West for UBRP that she stepped foot in her first lab. Before UBRP, she was working two jobs: one at a day care and one as a grocery bagger at Safeway. She got the acceptance letter from Carol saying she was accepted into UBRP with a paid lab position and the rest was history.
“It was very life altering for me,” she says. “It gave me access to scientists and I got to learn all of these things I had no idea about previously.”
And they were amazing scientists. Really good scientists have a way of looking at the world while simultaneously helping their students see it, too, she describes. And the scientists she worked for during UBRP, Dr. Vas Aposhian, Dr. Danny Brower and Dr. Jon Marchalonis, were that for her.
Dr. Schroeder keeps all of her undergraduate experiences in mind as she mentors her undergraduates in her lab today—she wants to be that mentor because the mentors she had in her life during undergrad played a huge role for her. They helped her get to where she is today, so as a mentor she wants to give that back.
“As a PI, we get very focused on results. We need to get this paper because we need to get this next grant, and so on,” she says. “But I always have this reminder of what it was like as an undergraduate. So when I get wrapped up in the PI-ness of this job, it helps me to remember what I was doing and motivated by as an undergraduate.”
Enjoy your time doing research as an undergraduate, she says.
“A lot of students get so buried under all of the things demanded from them that they forget to really enjoy this incredible opportunity of doing research as an undergrad,” she says. “As you go on to be a scientist, there are very few times that someone isn’t going to be demanding a result from you.”
Have fun learning about science right now but put your heart into it.
Back to Dr. Schroeder’s grad school survival tip: “I think a lot of people don’t really appreciate what [giving your life to the lab] means,” she says. “Make your lab your family. Find a lab you really want to be in. The knowledge you gain by putting in long hours every day and most weekends will change you—it honestly changes your brain and your ability to do science. If you appreciate that that is what it really takes, I think it makes a real difference for students and what they get out of grad school.”
So for those wanting to go to grad school—A PhD really is just a piece of paper she says. She has seen the entire scope of PhDs get issued.
“It’s those people that have really put their heart and soul into their PhD that go on to have super happy and successful careers.”