Don’t Fall in Love with Your Hypothesis

Dessy Raytcheva
Department of Biology, COS
Northeastern University
134 Mugar, 203A
360 Huntington Ave
Boston, MA 02115

I was part of the King’s lab family from 2006 until 2012. My PhD project was a collaboration between my PhD advisor at Northeastern University, Dr. Jacqueline Piret, and Jon’s lab at MIT. As an enthusiastic, but a bit inexperienced graduate student, I was quite focused on the project – studying the intracellular assembly of cyanophage Syn5. The most challenging part of my project was finding out if a precursor shell, the procapsid, existed for this bacteriophage (Raytcheva et al. 2406-2415). It took more than a year to finally obtain data supporting our hypothesis. I was incredibly thrilled and excited as I walked into Jon’s office expecting a small celebration of the success. I was quite puzzled, and frankly a bit upset, when instead he started critiquing the results. He was asking questions on the procedural details, the experimental conditions, the controls used. He also suggested more experiments I needed to do before we can confirm the results. I remember walking out of his office wondering: why is Jon not excited? Why is he trying to poke holes in the results? I worked so hard to obtain these data! Well, it took me some time but eventually I realized that Jon practiced what he preached – never fall in love with your hypothesis. Instead, have many hypotheses and look at the results with all of them in mind. Additionally, I had a tendency to focus only on the results directly related to the research question I was investigating. He taught me not to overlook any of the findings regardless of how minor or irrelevant they seemed. I am now an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University. One of the classes I teach is a project-based lab research class. Students work in groups to design and execute their own experiments. As I guide these young scientists through their projects, I often catch myself quoting Jon, as best as I can by memory, and teaching them all the lessons I learned from him.

Learning how to be a better researcher at the bench, was not the only valuable takeaway from my time working with Jon. True collaboration among scientists was another important one. It started with the collaborative nature of my PhD project. I watched Jacqueline and Jon work closely together writing grant proposals and brainstorming project ideas. Both of them strongly encouraged collaborations among lab members. I was a bit hesitant at first to accept help from other people, because I had this belief that as a graduate student my project was my responsibility and it was my job to execute the project all by myself and face all challenges on my own. I am truly grateful to Jon and Jacqueline for showing me that collaboration among scientist is welcome, important, and leads to more complete research findings. As I worked closely with Cammie Haase-Pettingell on my phage assembly project, and as I helped Dr. Wei Dai grow the oceanic Synechococcus bacteria in the lab in Houston (Dai et al. 707-710), I realized that I loved working as part of a team. This served me well during my time as a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts Medical School where close team work was the norm. As a faculty at Northeastern University, I strive to create a supportive environment for my colleagues. Teaching can feel lonely but it doesn’t have to be and there is so much we can learn from each other. I also carefully guide my students through group work, and help them develop the skills and tools they will need to thrive in a team. I wish all graduate students have the opportunity to experience the benefits of team work.

Last but not least, I will forever remember how much Jon cared about the people in his lab. He took time to get to know us, and was genuinely interested in learning about our journeys and past experiences. For him, we were not just scientists working with him but people with interests and lives outside of the lab. He encouraged us to pursue those interests and to get involved in our communities. He showed us how with his involvement in numerous and different outreach projects. He acknowledged that our lives and work were intertwined with the lives of our families, and was trying to be as supportive as possible when needed. Close family members were always invited and welcome to the lab celebrations at his home. When advising us on our career moves, he never forgot about our loved ones and how they will be affected by our choices. As I work with my students, whether there are 16 or 160 in the room, I try to get to know them a little bit as people. I will always remember, that a little kindness and caring from a mentor or a professor goes a long way and will touch many people down the road.

Desislava A. Raytcheva, et al. “Intracellular Assembly of Cyanophage Syn5 Proceeds through a Scaffold-Containing Procapsid.” Journal of Virology 85.5 (2011): 2406-15. MEDLINE. Web.

Wei Dai, et al. “Visualizing virus assembly intermediates inside marine cyanobacteria.” Nature (London) 502.7473 (2013): 707-10. MEDLINE. Web.