The telescope room atop Pupin Hall at Columbia University offers a stunning view of the night sky and the New York City skyline. Astronomy Ph.D. candidate Cameron Hummels even considered moving his desk and computer up to the rooftop shed before concluding that his computer would not last long without heat or air conditioning. As much as Hummels would like to be near the telescopes all the time, the discoveries he wants to make also require computers, and there’s a lot at stake: “I love the fact that I could potentially make a difference,” he says, “in how we identify the underlying principles of nature.”
Tony Kouzarides tells the story of his early career as a comedy of errors. He started his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. in 1981 studying the cancer-inducing potential of human cytomegalovirus. After a year of inserting part of the virus’s DNA into target cells, the cells showed almost no signs of cancer. He couldn’t rule out that other parts of the virus might do it, but he also couldn’t publish his early results. What he could publish by the end had more to do with genetic sequencing, an area he did not want to pursue.
After a short postdoc at Cambridge sequencing cytomegalovirus, he landed a second postdoc in a lab in New York studying oncogenes. There, he spent 2 years developing an unconfirmed and unpublishable hunch. On the strength of that record, he deadpans, he unsuccessfully applied to lead his own research group.
Thomas Helleday was precocious long before he started supervising Ph.D. students as he finished his own doctorate. His mother, a banker, bought him his first stock at age 7. At age 16, the Swedish native volunteered in a cancer ward with his older brother and “was terrified” by the harsh side effects of radiation therapy he saw there. Vowing to do something about it, potentially in the pharmaceutical industry, Helleday studied business and molecular biology as an undergraduate.
Mohammed Homman is in no hurry to defend his dissertation. It’s not because the Karolinska Institute doctoral candidate needs more time to write or perform a few more experiments. Nor is it because he needs to be home most days by 5 p.m. to help his wife, Maria Homman, who heads her own research and development lab at Akzo Nobel, care for their two daughters. Homman is taking his time to finish his degree because he’s busy wooing investors, hiring researchers–some of them with their own doctorates–and establishing business partnerships. Finishing his degree just isn’t his highest priority right now.