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College of Pharmacy Implements Lab Rotation Program for PhD Students

UT Health Science Center College of Pharmacy PhD students can rotate through several labs to find the one that best fits their interests on the way to their degree.

The UT Health Science Center College of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences is implementing a new option for PhD students to earn their degree. Previously, direct placement in one specific lab was the only option for prospective PhD students entering the graduate program. However, since the fall of 2023, prospective graduate students can choose their research area by rotating through several research labs and selecting their preferred lab at the end of the rotation.

Students who choose the lab rotation option can rotate through highly esteemed labs at the college and research institutions, such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The new approach provides more options and flexibility, allowing students to fully explore their research interests and find the perfect fit for their graduate studies.

Devi Naga Jyothi Bale, a first-year PhD student, chose the rotation option, as it allowed her to work in three different labs during her first year of PhD studies. She found it beneficial to rotate through the labs, enabling her to experience different teaching and work styles. Each lab had a unique workflow, which gave her a better understanding of the research process. “Rotations perfectly suited my needs, as I wanted to change my focus from pharmacy to molecular biology,” says Bale.

Another first-year PhD student, Homa Rezaei, found value in rotating through different research projects before committing, as it allowed her to refine her research interests before settling on the topic she would continue with as a graduate student. “Having a theoretical understanding of a field is very different from actually working in it,” says Rezaei, “For instance, I was initially interested in the field of structural biology, which is highly valued in the pharmaceutical industry. However, it wasn’t until I did a rotation in a lab that I realized I wasn’t passionate about that aspect of the field.”

Direct placement, the traditional option for prospective PhD students at UT Health Science Center’s College of Pharmacy, involves applying for the program directly with the researcher of a particular research lab that sparks their interest. This process involves reviewing applications, approaching interested faculty, conducting interviews, and deciding to enroll in the lab. This process is beneficial for students who already know their research interests.

For example, Mir Shahriar Kamal, a first-year PhD student under the supervision of Wei Li, PhD, had a keen interest in anti-cancer drug development, making Dr. Li’s lab the ideal place for him to pursue his PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences. Being in contact with his supervisor throughout the application process helped him design a pathway that worked great for his research interests.

“Before coming to the lab, I had researched the work of my supervisor. This gave me an overall idea of the lab’s projects. I was able to study these projects and ask questions. My supervisor, Dr. Wei Li, gave me insights on the projects. With this knowledge, I could choose courses that related to the projects,” says Kamal. “As I knew which lab I would be working in, I could start learning from the senior members of my lab right from the beginning of the first semester. I believe this bolstered the learning process and helped me face and solve actual research problems right from the start.”

Similarly, Mojtaba Zarei’s interest in immunotherapy perfectly matched his research interests in the lab of Chalet Tan, PhD. A rotation option was not ideal, as she was ready to begin her research on day one. “Before joining here, I had already decided on my research, even if I had been forced to do rotations,” says Zarei.

Last fall, four students who opted for the rotation method of selecting their lab successfully found a permanent lab in which to work. While the traditional direct placement system is great for students with a clear research interest, the new rotation system allows students to explore and discover their interests and find the best match for their graduate studies. These options increase the opportunities for prospective students to excel and better help solve health care issues in Tennessee and beyond.