PhD candidates in biomedical sciences kick off studies at lab coat ceremony

Students in doctoral programs, from epidemiology to biomedical physics, don their lab coats and pledge their commitment to scientific ethics.

- By Mandy Erickson

AbuBakr Sangare holds up a friend as students in the biology cohort celebrate the beginning of their doctoral program.
Steve Fisch

Imani Porter fell in love with genetics as a high school student, when she first learned that a person’s behavior and environment affect the way their genes express themselves.

“I thought it was cool that you can take your genetics into your own hands with lifestyle choices,” she said. “I wanted to further explore how those external factors make a difference.”

After majoring in biochemistry at Hampton University, Porter applied to and was accepted into the Stanford School of Medicine’s PhD program in genetics. On Sept. 27, she and her classmates celebrated the launch of their doctoral studies with a white coat ceremony at the school’s Li Ka Shing Center.

A group of 226 students in the biomedical sciences received their lab coats during the event. Sorted by their field of study, they walked on stage already sporting their crisp white coats with names embroidered across the chest. Many departments were made up of just a handful of students, some of whom paused on stage to take a group selfie. The largest department, bioengineering, featured 47 students; the smallest, structural biology, just one: Jane Lee, who received the most the animated round of applause.

“You’ve chosen a magnificent field of inquiry,” Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, told the crowd. “We are truly living in the Renaissance era of life sciences. The opportunity to make advances to further our understanding has never been greater.”

Imani Porter

Advice for success

At the event, a panel of two professors and two students in the biomedical sciences offered tips on how to thrive in the doctoral program. Besides naming the campus cafes with the best coffee and quiet places to recharge (such as the Arizona Garden), they urged the new students to develop interests outside their studies and research.

“Find a hobby you really enjoy outside of the lab so when things go wrong you have something to look forward to,” said Celeste Diaz, a doctoral student in cancer biology.

“You have to step outside the lab,” agreed Andrew Burden, a stem cell biology and regenerative medicine PhD candidate. As an example, he said, “I play the flute as part of a musical theater group. It’s absolutely incredible how many extracurriculars exist in this school.”

Daniel Jarosz, PhD, an associate professor of chemical and systems biology and of developmental biology, encouraged the students to pursue ideas they’re enthusiastic about in their time at Stanford Medicine.

“Your excitement will push you forward,” he said. As long as you’re following your passion rather than checking boxes, he told them, you’ll succeed — even when experiments fail.

“If you take care of the science, it’ll take care of you,” he said.

Opportunities on campus

Gerson Ascencio, who is beginning his studies in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, said he chose the Stanford School of Medicine because it has so many researchers in his chosen field, along with others at Stanford University who are advancing technology. “Everything I need is here, and I’m not just talking about the school of medicine,” he said. “I mean the whole university.”

Gerson Ascencio

Ascencio, who said he’s always been fascinated by stem cells and their potential — “With a stem cell, you can make it what you want it to be, even whole organs” — hopes to become a professor, conduct research and one day train doctoral students.

AbuBakr Sangare’s path to the PhD program was less direct. He liked biology and, not knowing about opportunities in the field besides practicing medicine, figured his goal was to become a doctor. But as an undergraduate, while watching a surgeon perform a knee replacement, he passed out.

“I thought, ‘Maybe this is not for me.’ I don’t like blood,” he said. He landed an internship in a synthetic chemistry lab, and “That was my aha moment. I realized research was what I wanted to do.”

Sangare, who said he’s “really into microorganisms,” is pursuing his doctoral degree in biology. “I like the idea of exploring the science, thinking thoughts no one has thought before,” he said.

At the end of the ceremony, the lab-coat-clad students stood as Minor led them in reciting the Stanford Biosciences Affirmation: “…And I will always be cognizant that my work is for the advancement of knowledge and the benefit of all humanity and our world.”

With that, the students headed outside for photos, dinner and, eventually, the lab.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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