Keep Calm and Janeway!

When I started my PhD I was a “newbie”. I was THE DEFINITION of newbie: inexperienced beginner, making the first steps in the wild and scary PhD world! I was driven by curiosity, passion and motivation and I was hungry to know more, to learn more, to develop my own ideas and find my own way to push forward the project I was assigned to.

At this time, I also realized how important the direct confrontation with my colleagues and supervisors about scientific topics was: sharing opinions, ideas, prospective, and knowledge seemed a very efficient method to learn well and quickly.

I had the impression that my learning phase should not only be at the bench or sitting at my desk reading papers, but it needed the direct contact with people. Not only more experienced people, but also with people like me, with the same doubts and insecurities.

This was the time when, by talking with other students at the beginning of my PhD, we realized we could do something about it, we could create our own environment to share and discuss scientific topics and learn together. I don’t remember exactly how it started, what was the kick off event or the very first person that took initiative for this, but I remember that after some emails and the support of the ImmunoSensation Cluster to find a meeting space, we ended up in a room with more than 15 students with the only goal to talk about Immunology. Any part of it. We called the group ISG (Immunology for the Stupid Gang). Just kidding –  it stands for Immunology Study Group.

Obviously, we needed a plan. We needed a structure.

So the very first question was: “What do we exactly need from this group?” and after a short discussion we figured out that we actually all wanted a stronger knowledge in basic Immunology, and especially in aspects that are not exactly the focus of our own PhD projects. So we decided to use our meetings to learn from Janeway, the Bible of Immunology!

(photo from Ulf Wittrock)

We agreed to meet once a week and we made a plan: every week one of us was in charge to read some paragraphs (around 20 pages) of the Janeway and lead the discussion during the meeting. Sometimes we ended up brainstorming about possible experiments to demonstrate some concepts or mechanisms we read in the book, like using different technics or investigate another disease model. Some other times we strayed away from the topic a bit further just to talk about our emotions regarding our projects. This was also useful and many times comforting.

It took us around 2 years to complete the whole book, with some breaks in between to look into specific topics we found useful for our own research or simply very interesting.

This experience helped me to go through the initial learning phase with motivated (most of the time) and enthusiastic (also most of the time) PhD students, having real fun learning and supporting each other during some dark and unsuccessful periods in the lab.

I would like to encourage the new generation of PhD students to get their own opportunity to do science together, talk about what is known, what is new, what is the future of immunology, to discuss without shame or fear about what you really DO NOT know, but maybe should, etc.

The PhD phase can be very challenging and sometimes very hard to go through, but we are a very big community of students and we all have the same goal: learn! And become independent scientists!  

So, keep calm and Janeway!

Teresa Frasconi

I would like to thank all the ISG-team for the great time together! And a special thank to Kasia Jobin, for the revision of this article.

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