This is usually a somewhat wan and dispirited affair, one that is rather poorly attended by most of our graduate students. Many of the more senior students come up with excuses, such as "I was overcome by an acute attack of umbilical lintitis," "My dog ate my electronic daily planner, so I couldn't remember where I had to be," or something equally inventive and unlikely.
Because of imponderable state regulations, our hospital cafeteria owns the exclusive rights to cater these and similar events. As a result, the food that is served is not, to put it mildly, gourmet. Our cafeteria seems to make all its food out of some material that has the consistency and taste of Styrofoam, even if the chefs do try to pass it off as pizza or Chinese food or whatever they wish to call it that day. This, of course, does little to attract a large crowd, except for the most junior of graduate students, who seem to be willing to come to any function that has food, however inedible.
In idle moments, I wonder whether there was a time in my life when I was this desperate. Regretfully, I have to admit to myself that there was. For reasons that elude me, Barry's get-together with the students was extremely well attended; almost every student in our program was there.
The format of these outside speaker-graduate student get-togethers has become predictable and ritualized, even if there has never been any guideline for conducting them. After initial moments when everyone grabs a plate and some food and chews away on the inedible, there is the standard "Let's go around the table and introduce ourselves" routine. The outside speaker then addresses each of the students in turn, asking, "In whose lab do you work and what do you do?" However well- intentioned the question might be, there is always a hint of condescension about it. Most students, by the time they are in the third or fourth year of research, have gone through this routine sufficiently often that they can probably recite the answer to the question in their sleep, and they often seem to do so. No wonder many of the senior students boycott these sessions.
A Different Question
The session with Barry was quite different. He made them sit in a semicircle; he himself sat at what would be its center. Instead of going around the semicircle, asking the students to introduce themselves and tell with whom they worked and what their most recent experiments were, Barry threw out a question to the whole group. He asked, "What do you think is the most important question that remains to be solved in immunology?" This was quite daring and unusual, because instead of just recounting what they remembered by rote, the students had to actually think and come up with an answer.
Years later, as I remember that session, I continue to be amazed by the answers that Barry solicited. When I recount the story to them, some of my more cynical colleagues tell me that what I heard was exactly what I should have expected. What remains etched in my memory, several years after it actually happened, was that the graduate students, without exception, expressed the opinion that the project that they were working on, or something very closely related to it, was the most important remaining question in immunology. Thus, the student working in a lab focusing on signal transduction said that the burning question in immunology was how T-cell receptor engagement caused mitogen-activated protein kinase activation. A student working in a lab specializing in ß2 microglobulin expressed the opinion that the central question in immunology was how major histocompatibility complex (MHC) heavy chain's interactions with ß2 microglobulin give rise to the conformational epitopes detected by certain monoclonal antibodies. Students in the laboratory of a colleague who works on recent thymic emigrants felt that the central question was the fate of these cells immediately after their exit from the thymus. My students were unanimous in the opinion that the last frontier in immunology was the understanding of host-parasite interactions.
To me, the endearing aspect of these responses was that they seemed to indicate the sense of loyalty that students felt toward their mentors and their own work. I think it is hard not to be touched by the fact that someone sincerely believed that the generation of an MHC conformational epitope was really an important question in immunology. Either the student really believed this or had convinced himself that the project given to him by his mentor was really earth shattering. In either case, the fact that a reasonably intelligent student could believe, at least in some corner of his mind, that this somewhat arcane and obscure problem is a burning, unsolved issue in immunology is, in its own way, quite touching.
On the other hand, of course, one can view this from the "half-empty cup" perspective. What are we doing to our graduate students that within a few years of their training they seem to lose sight of the really big issues in biology? It is customary for faculty members my age to bemoan the decreasing aptitude and intellectual ability of the current crop of graduate students. My sneaking suspicion is that the average level has not declined to any perceptible degree since the time we were graduate students ourselves. Nor, I suspect, has the level of ambition or drive decreased to any material extent. The real truth may be that biology has become overwhelmingly information rich. Perhaps the broad-based education that allows one to ponder the larger biological questions is no longer possible. There is so much technical arcana now, especially with the emergence of molecular biology, that our students have to work long and hard to ensure that they are competent in the most recent techniques. They may no longer have the time to tarry over the historical or metaphysical bases of our craft. Perhaps Barry's experiment, for all that I found it challenging, novel, and exciting, was directed at too young an audience. Had someone like Barry asked me the same question when I was in my mid-20s, would I have had a more thoughtful response? I suspect not. The apprenticeship that we call graduate education may be the time to acquire raw knowledge; the wisdom will come later.
Perhaps the question "What is the real burning issue in immunology (or neuroscience or cell biology)?" is inappropriate for a graduate student.