Life on the Flip Side: The Post-Defense Adventure

Written by: Arielle Keller and Avery Krieger

Published February 2018

The best thesis defense is a good thesis offense, but who better to learn from than those who have recently defended their honor? We interviewed three of the latest graduates of the Stanford Neurosciences Program to find out what the pre- and post-defense life has been like, how they made it happen, and what grand exploits they are planning to embark upon next.

Lane McIntosh (Baccus & Ganguli labs), Helen Yang (Clandinin lab), and David Lipton (Shen lab) kindly volunteered their incredible insights into the life of a recent defendee. Read their inspiring, comical, and candid responses below!

David Lipton (Shen Lab)

Helen Yang (Clandinin Lab)

Lane McIntosh (Ganguli & Baccus Labs)

Avery and Arielle: Explain your thesis in two sentences!

Lane: Historically we understand sensory systems by perturbing them with artificially constructed stimuli, but we don’t know if what we’ve learned generalizes to the system’s natural operating conditions. My thesis shows a way to understand the retina during natural vision by training and inspecting neural network models of the circuit.

Helen: During my graduate studies, I was broadly interested the computations that neuronal circuits perform and the circuit and molecular mechanisms that implement them. I pioneered techniques for monitoring neural activity and manipulating gene function and utilized them to reveal mechanisms underlying fundamental transformations of sensory information in the fruit fly visual system.

David: For my thesis I asked how rapidly pre-synaptic specializations form behind a growing axon, and how the materials necessary to build these pre-synapses are transported to the necessary sites along the axon. I found that synapses form rapidly (in a matter of minutes), and that precise regulation of kinesin-3 driven transport along the axon deposits synaptic vesicles at synaptic sites, while active zone proteins are transported by other means.


Avery and Arielle:  How did you manage the days leading up to your defense? How did you celebrate afterward?

Lane: I hid myself in a LKSC study room working on slides, gave practice talks, and sang Disney songs while huddled in a corner staring at the wall. I celebrated by barbecuing and hanging out with friends and family.

Helen: In the day or two immediately before my defense, I spent a rather large amount of time figuring out my personal acknowledgements for Tom [Clandinin]. I knew that his introduction of me would be extensive, funny, and just slightly embarrassing, and I wanted to reciprocate with acknowledgements that expressed my deep appreciation of his mentorship but was also humorous. I couldn't let him win, and the effort I spent helped distract me from stressing over my actual talk and practicing it constantly. After my defense, we celebrated with Oren's Hummus and a distinct lack of alcohol. It was pretty low key.

David: I started preparing for my defense way ahead of time - especially for me. I gave a practice talk to the lab 2 weeks ahead of time... and it wasn't very good. There was still a lot of work to do. Luckily I had time, and by the time I gave a practice talk right before the defense, it was pretty close to ready. But then, the night before the defense I was pretty amped up, and didn't sleep the entire night. So I got out of bed the day of my defense, and I had no idea what was going on or how the hell I was gonna make it through the defense. And then I just said to myself, 'it's alright man, you can do this!'. I downed a little coffee, was able to finally nap for 15 minutes, and then the whole defense went great. Afterwards, I celebrated with my family at lunch by getting an Impossible burger, and then fell into a black-out sleep for an hour before the lab celebration in the afternoon.


Avery and Arielle:  Tell us a funny story about your mentor!

Lane: Every other year Stephen Baccus teaches an Information Processing and Signaling Mechanisms class. One year during this class, loud music erupted outside of the classroom from the medical students’ video production parody of Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband” ( Steve took the moment of class distraction to perform a short dance routine, which quickly refocused the class. Later I learned from a 1987 Washington Post article about Steve that he had a one-hour act — piano, accordion, tap-dancing, "sort of a vaudeville-type thing,” — which helped explain Steve’s dancing talent.

Helen: Tom [Clandinin] and I were teaching a course at the Okinawa Institute for Science and Technology and had the opportunity to go snorkeling in the mornings. Once, we came across some small giant clams that closed whenever we swam near them. Tom's reaction to this was to try to figure out whether this response was mediated by vision or mechanosensation by pushing water towards the clams and by swimming slowly and trying to cast shadows over them. Of course, in the ocean, it's rather tricky to stay in one spot relative to a clam, so he looked even more ridiculous than one normally does while snorkeling, and the results were inconclusive. We figured out later that vision definitely contributes as someone had some in an aquarium and the clams close when we merely waved our hands near the tank. So Tom then decided it would be interesting to figure out whether giant clams could see motion and started making plans to do experiments testing this at the course the following year…

David: At the lab holiday party one year, someone brought furry handcuffs to the white elephant gift exchange. Kang brought his kids to the party and one of them picked the handcuffs, and got very upset when Kang tried to take them away...


Avery and Arielle:   What superpower would have helped you the most during your PhD?

Lane: Is time travel a superpower? Because definitely that one.

Helen: A perfect memory would have been really useful.

David: Cloning - of whole people. A couple of lab-mates and I joked that one of the other graduate students had succeeded in cloning herself because of the amount of data she produced. We were convinced there were at least two copies of her, and that the night-version would take over when she went home to go to sleep. Sadly, there was no night-David helping me with my experiments.

Avery and Arielle:   What aspects of mentorship (from your PI or otherwise) did you appreciate that you might try to emulate in whatever career you pursue?

Lane: There are so many aspects of my advisors that I want to emulate in my career. Both Steve Baccus and Surya Ganguli place a strong emphasis on scientific motivation, from the initial research question to the conference presentation, to the point that we spend significant time on motivation during lab meetings even if fellow lab members have heard the pitch before. Taking this time to think of many different angles of motivation has helped me develop my ideas and go in more fruitful directions than otherwise would have been possible.

Helen: Tom actively tailors his mentorship to the needs of his individual mentees. For example, he worked with me a lot on giving talks, which was a weakness of mine. Not only did this involve finding me opportunities to give talks, for a while, the first portion of every one of our weekly meetings was devoted to talk practice. I also appreciated that Tom provided useful insight/advice in situations where I didn't even know to ask (e.g. how to negotiate with companies when making a large capital purchase).  

David: There are lots of outstanding mentors at Stanford, who I've learned a lot from. In particular, my P.I. Kang [Shen] is unbelievably generous and cares about his students/post-docs as people, and is always willing to listen to our scientific ideas and what we are interested in. I similarly hope to be just as interested and invested in understanding what makes people I mentor come alive, and then see how I can help tailor my mentees activities to tap into his/her passions and strengths. I also learned a lot from my committee members, from Sue [McConnell]: being a dynamic mesmerizing lecturer, from Tom [Clandinin]: helping others, and being broadly scientifically interested, and from Ben [Barres]: hard-work, optimism, passion, and courage. I was privileged to interact with Ben during my PhD, and I'll always be inspired by his combination of courage and good-heartedness.


Avery and Arielle:   What are you up to now? What kind of career do you think you'll pursue?

Lane: Fresh off defending, life returned pretty quickly to normal. As I finish some papers, I’m starting to interview for machine learning and deep learning research positions in industry. We’re in a unique time where many large tech companies have academic research groups that ask scientific questions, publish research, and have access to large amounts of data and computational resources. Last year I worked on some computer vision problems at Google Brain (paper pending!), and really enjoyed my time there. I think that there is a lot the deep learning field can learn from neuroscience, especially with respect to computational efficiency,  robustness to noise, and how to best use temporal sensory information.

Helen: Currently, I'm doing a postdoc with Rachel Wilson at Harvard Medical School. I'd like to obtain a tenure-track position at a major research institution.

David: Currently, I am doing a faux-doc (a fake post-doc for a few months after defending) in my Ph.D. lab, and plan to move on to a real post-doc soon. Eventually I see myself as either a professor, teacher, or perhaps working for a biotech startup.


Avery and Arielle:   What Stanford resource or outside opportunities do you wish you had taken more advantage of? Are there opportunities you're glad you took advantage of during your PhD?

Lane: During my time at Stanford I was an Oral Communication Tutor for three years at the Hume Center, where students and postdocs can give presentations to a tutor and get feedback. It’s a fantastic, free resource that can be a good self-imposed deadline for making that talk, and it was also a great experience working there, giving me exposure to a wide range of students and disciplines.

Helen: I wish I learned more about machine learning. Outside of lab, I'm glad I started doing karate with Stanford's JKA Shotokan karate club. The people were great, and training was very good for my physical and mental health throughout grad school.  

David: In the beginning of my PhD, I took a few classes at the design school, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which gave me a sense of opportunity and optimism that there were possibilities for creative and optimistic problem-solving at every moment, even when one hits a rough patch. I recommend taking a class at the I wish I had gotten involved in entrepreneurial activities earlier - there's a ton of resources at Stanford to do this, such as the summer [Stanford] Ignite program. Friends of mine who have  engaged in entrepreneurship have learned a ton, and had a blast doing so. Also, I wish I played more sports, and engaged in more athletics during grad school, though I did manage to play some basketball and stay active enough.


Avery and Arielle:   What advice or words of encouragement would you give current grad students or college students interested in pursuing a PhD?

Lane: Pursue a PhD because you are curious about specific scientific questions, not for what you think it will do for your career. What could be cooler than getting paid to ask the questions you’re curious about?

Helen: It's useful to periodically sit down and think very explicitly about your goals (for your experiments, PhD, skill development, career, etc.) and consider how or whether what you're currently doing aligns with those goals and if there's something else you could be doing that would help you achieve your goals. I find that this helps me keep things in perspective and change directions if needed.

David: As Ben Barres said to me when I was rotating, choose a lab based at least in part on where you feel happiest, especially socially. People matter a great deal. I still remember him saying that lab should feel at least a bit like summer camp. Of course you should be excited by the science, too, but I think people (especially outside of science) wouldn't think of the social component being as important as it is. And then once you are in the lab, focus on improving as a scientist every day. Read and think as much as you can, and don't get too bogged down in doing experiments and trying to plow ahead that you lose sight of the bigger picture. Spend time trying to help lab-mates think through their project(s). It'll help you develop as a scientist, and the help you give will come back around and be an invaluable resource to you.


Avery and Arielle:   Any shoutouts or thank-yous?

Lane: So many people to thank; as the saying goes, no PhD is an island. Thank you to unwavering support from my mentors Steve Baccus and Surya Ganguli, my lab mates, and all my friends in Stanford neurosciences!

Helen: Tom and the Clandinin lab, past and present; Michael Lin and Francois St-Pierre, who I collaborated with; my thesis committee; and of course, everyone in the Stanford Neurosciences program and community.  

David: Thanks to my family, all my friends at Stanford, in my lab, and in the neuro program. I am continually in awe of how many wonderful people I'm blessed to be with in life. Thanks to Stanford Hillel/Chabad for making my time enjoyable and full of personal growth. Shout-out to NeuWriteWest - go Arielle and Isabel for being the new superstar leadership! And thanks to all the students and faculty who have been such excellent mentors.