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Blanche Capel, PhD alongside graduate student Corey Bunce

Blanche Capel, Ph.D. and Corey Bunce

We asked current graduate student Corey Bunce to interview his PI, Blanche Capel.  Corey and Blanche’s conversation is below.  He also added in similar questions and interviewed himself on the same topics.

What’s the biggest benefit of having your lab at Duke?
Blanche: This is definitely the amazing colleagues I have here!  It is wonderful working with such talented and friendly people.
Corey: Why did you choose Duke for graduate school? That was pretty simple actually. I mean, a lot of factors went into narrowing down potential places, but from the final handful it was based on my research interests. From my research experience before my PhD, I knew what I wanted to study, which was embryology and systems biology, but more importantly I knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t in a lab that was taking an integrated approach to studying development. Duke happened to have the most labs with that style of research, and at the time had other resources dedicated to those points as well.
What excites you about the DSCB program?
Blanche: I love the fact that so many different disciplines and experimental points of view are represented in DSCB.  The barriers to cross-collaboration are very low at Duke and our students have a remarkable smorgasbord of expertise to chose from to develop interdisciplinary projects at the cutting edge of the field.
Corey: Maybe the most prominent thing is how being part of DSCB means seeing this incredible variety of approaches to pretty much all the parts of the academic process. It’s likely based on it being an umbrella program that extends across several fairly different departments, but from the ways that students and PIs approach their research, to their management of teaching, conferences, extracurriculars and such, there are so many different strategies people have for managing their academic interests and activities. And since it’s all connected in this close network (the DSCB community is fairly small and very friendly) it feels like all of the options you might want to consider are readily available for you to look into. It makes for this great opportunity to forge a quite unique PhD experience.
What’s the most important thing when looking for new students?
Blanche: I look for students who love science and are excited by discovery. I also look for students who have a positive attitude and want to cooperate in a lab environment and make my lab a good place to work.
Corey: What’s the most important thing when looking for a mentor? I think this varies from student to student. It seems by the time you reach graduate school most students have had some sorts of mentors and they might benefit most from finding more of the same or they might want to look for something else. And optimally in grad school you’ll find multiple mentors that can guide you in different parts of the process, since experiences and trajectories vary so much. For me personally, it was important to find a PI that would be at least open to-and perhaps able to cultivate-my particular style of problem solving.
How do you manage the variety of research in your lab?
Blanche: Sometimes this is a bit overwhelming, but in general I love the variety of research in my lab and find it very exciting.  I meet with each person once a week and I strongly encourage people to help and learn from each other.  I think the variety of research is a benefit to everyone’s training.  I do not take primary responsibility for each project, but I expect each student or postdoc to be the leader for his/her own project. My job is to facilitate the research by finding money and resources and by sharing ideas.
Corey: How does your project fit into Blanche’s research? My main project in Blanche’s lab seeks to understand how the cells of the early gonad coordinate their activity such that this population of bipotential cells can develop as a bipotential organ. This project and this concept have a lot of history in Blanche’s lab, going back to the very beginnings, and I’ve had to integrate work coming from I think probably over a dozen different trainees Blanche has had. But even though there’s the historical precedent, that particular research focus makes up only small fraction of what is currently being studied in the lab. I find that the way our projects fit together is that each fosters a particular perspective on development, like how mine emphasizes the hierarchical nature of developmental processes, and I feel like getting all these different perspectives on each other’s projects, and maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to say it’s always successful, but i feel it can allow us to get a sort of glimpse of this big picture of developmental biology in general.
What’s the most important part of your role as a mentor?
Blanche: Encouraging students and postdocs to stay optimistic, grow, take risks, and enjoy the opportunity to discover something new.

Corey: What’s the most important part of your role as a trainee? I find it really important to be prepared to try out different methods of managing your activities to find the one the works best for you. There are a lot of different parts of this process, and I think over the course of a PhD you have to learn to incorporate more and more, but it’s not always easy to accommodate for new things or shifts in priorities and to make sure that everything is still working smoothly and effectively overall. And the right balance is almost certainly different for each student, so I think it’s crucial to be trying different strategies and then also to find a means of evaluating the situation so you can keep optimizing. It’s a huge benefit to both you and your mentor to find and recognize explicitly what that optimum is or at least, i guess, where you are relative to it. Let’s not assume that even as a 6th year I’ve managed to solve this puzzle.

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