6 Years of Winding up The Robot

Maksym Shyian                                                          
Former PhD student in the Shore lab, Department of Molecular Biology, Faculty of Science.
Research Focus: DNA Replication (Forks).

Max4One of the nicest guys in the program, Maksym, recently impressed many of us during his thesis defense. Here, we ask him to reflect on his PhD experience – What were the highlights? How did he manage to stay sane (and so nice!)? What would he do differently if he could do it all over again? Also, he shares some tips and tricks with us on how to reach the finish line.

– Congratulations, you did a wonderful job! Was the defense what you expected it to be?

When I saw that so many people actually had come to listen to me, it was the happiest moment of my PhD! It completely alleviated my anxiety and it helped me to deliver one of my best presentations.Max1

– Looking back at the beginning – 6 years ago – do you think you’ve changed much over time? What have you learned from the whole experience?

6 years feels both like a long and short period of time. I still remember quite distinctly my interview for the PhD program, back in 2012. One of my big mistakes at that moment, in retrospect, was not having many expectations. I just liked the place and decided to join. Many of my subsequent pointless wanderings in the lab and experimental culs-de-sac taught me to define research projects more precisely and to have a more realistic planning. I hope I’ve got valuable experience from both successes and failures that will make my future endeavors more effective, but only time will tell.

– What was/were the turning point(s) of your PhD?

Although many years/experiments passed, 3 main events pop readily into my mind when asked for a turning point.

First, my colleague Stefano Mattarocci meeting me in the corridor and saying: ‘Hey, would you like to do a couple of Western blots, and perhaps it will get us into MolCell quite soon’. Well, neither part of this statement turned out to be a perfect prediction – as it took perhaps a 100 blots to get us into CellReports. However, this taught me that writing a paper always follows the search, and both stages are equally important.

The second turning point I experienced one Saturday in the spring of 2015, when I dropped by the lab to make a picture of some yeast plates with various mutant combinations and immediately noticed ‘that striking phenotype’ – the effect seen on that plate perfectly connected all the disparate results I was having at that time and the feeling of understanding overwhelmed me. In that moment I also became a believer of the Power of Genetics. This ‘religion’ still carries me onward.

Lastly, one of the most important recurrent lessons I’ve received in the lab is that one has to find a healthy balance of thinking/doing. It’s easy to plunge into extremes, but dozens of hypotheses are worth nothing against a carefully designed experiment with proper controls, which can demolish them all and leave you with an alternative explanation that you didn’t even think of before.

– What superstitions/habits have you developed in your work?

I have a small wind-up robot in the lab (a present my wife gave me at the beginning of my PhD) that I set off every time I leave the lab for home. Somehow, I started to think that if I don’t do this – there will be nowhere to come back to the next day – the lab would disappear! For 6 years now I’ve never stopped to wind this robot up just before leaving. Yes, I care about my lab…

Another one of my usual rituals is to have good positive and negative controls in most of experiments. I believe good controls will save the world.

– If you had to do the whole thing all over again, would you change anything?

I would try to change everything. I would invest more time and effort into methodology. I would try to add from time to time a new experimental approach to my portfolio. Also, I would try to develop more multitasking skills – by having 2 main projects and also venturing now and then into exciting but risky directions with pilot experiments.

– What tips would you give those you’ll leave behind or those who are defending soon?

You are here for the ultimate aim – the day of your PhD defense. It is completely in your hands (and nobody else’s) what you will show to your friends/colleagues/juries on that day. If there is still time until the defense – don’t waste a moment and work really hard so that you can fill your future defense presentation with as much interesting stuff as possible – things that you’ve discovered all on your own!

It is always a good idea to ask competent people for sharing their expertise with you. There is no point in ‘re-inventing the wheel’ in most cases. Also, one famous scientist said: ‘Genetics never lies’ (forgot the ref). I would strongly suggest using genetics wherever possible.

Lastly, have a beer (or Rivella) with your colleagues once in a while and talk life/science with them, to the benefit of the mental health of all involved!


Reinier Prosée and Anatoly Kozlov

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