Ross Cagan, PhD, took up the post of Associate Dean of the Mount Sinai Graduate School of Biological Sciences last summer.
Do you think the current curriculum strikes a good balance between educating well-rounded scientists and preparing students for specific fields? What would you do to change it?
When I first took the Associate Dean position my most immediate priority – after meeting with the students – was to look in on the curriculum. It is better than I feared but not as effective as it could be. Every system runs down and needs to change periodically, and those running the courses have already taken several steps to improve it. In addition to canvassing the medical school, I assembled a team of Sinai colleagues and students to discuss improvements. We have taken a fresh look and developed a set of specific improvements. Basically, the goal has been to develop more coherence between the different sections and to make it more relevant to today's trainees. You’ll be hearing more about our plans shortly. Further down the line, I personally would like to see the curriculum shortened and intensified.
How has student feedback affected your plans?
First let me say that talking with the students has been the best part of the position. The most important thing we as mentors can do is to transition you to taking responsibility for your training. Grad school isn’t high school and most students are mature and savvy. The purpose of my pancake breakfasts and movie nights is to listen to your needs. The discussions have been wide-ranging and refreshingly smart and honest. My job is primarily to identify what the you need and – if you can convince me – to make it happen, and you all have had a big influence on my priorities. Many of the course suggestions were motivated by these discussions, as was MyGSocial.
What do you think of the current process by which students find a thesis advisor?
The standard three-rotation process is an excellent system but it has to be done wisely. The first is to get students to vet candidate labs carefully. Have previous students from the lab been successful? Who will be training the student: the PI, postdocs, other students? I get crazy when a student enters a laboratory with a poor training record. Second, don't be too obsessed with studying a specific topic, especially if it “happens” to be the topic of the student's previous lab experience. I generally advise to pick the lab, not the topic. Smart laboratories study interesting problems; you just have to take some time to learn what's interesting about their research. Finally, know yourself. Do you need more structure? More freedom? Be honest with yourself about what you need, which is not the same as staying in your comfort zone. One issue that the students have less control over is the possibility that laboratories will have fewer positions available as funding tightens.
How do you see the school in 10 years?
During my time with WashU we rose to be ranked as a top-three medical school. Sinai is younger, so I'd be satisfied with a top five ranking. I like the fact that we are further developing our identity in translational research; this will both play to Sinai's traditional strengths and will mesh with the emerging consensus in science thinking. In terms of training, I expect we will do a better job of preparing students for non-traditional, non-academic jobs.