Prospective Grad Students Get A Taste of Life at Penn State

Students interested in the Bioinformatics and Genomics; Plant Biology; Neuroscience; and Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences graduate programs were given a warm welcome on a snowy weekend.

Dr. Melissa Rolls with current and prospective graduate students
Dr. Melissa Rolls with current and prospective graduate students

More than three dozen prospective graduate students visited the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences last week, taking part in the first batch of interviews that will help shape the incoming fall 2019 cohort.

Thirty-seven students, interested in four of the seven inter-college graduate degree programs offered by Penn State through the Huck, were welcomed by faculty and current graduate students. Most arrived on the evening of Thursday the 17th, enjoying welcome dinners with people in their prospective programs. Some of the dinners were held at local restaurants like the Nittany Lion Inn, while others took place in the homes of the program chairs.

“I made everything from scratch,” laughed Melissa Rolls, who heads up the Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Biosicences (MCIBS) program.

“She was in the kitchen all day,” agreed Alex Weiner, a graduate student in her lab.

The personal touch—which also includes pairing prospective students with a host who guides them to interviews—is an important selling point for some of the program heads, who say they work diligently to engender a close-knit atmosphere in keeping with the Huck’s collaborative ethos.

“Inviting prospective students to my home gives them an opportunity to meet faculty members in an informal setting,” said Teh-Hui Kao, head of the plant biology graduate program. “They don’t feel as nervous during their interviews. They also get to talk to current students to learn about various aspects of the program from a student’s perspective and see how happy they are to be part of our program.”

“All of the grad students are super happy, and everyone is super accepting,” said Ellie Abraham, a prospective plant biology student who did her undergrad studies at Winthrop University.

“The main takeaway, for us, is that we’re all like a big family,” said Elizabeth Kelly, plant biology student in Claude dePamphilis’s lab and Abraham’s host for the day. “I think genuinely, we’re way happier than a lot of other grad programs. You have friends in grad school that are just not as happy, they’re not as fulfilled, they’re not as supported as we are here at Penn State.”

The warm welcome on Thursday helped compensate for the whirlwind nature of the compact schedule: on Friday, students took part in an all-day series of interviews with faculty, punctuated by more shared meals.

“I got to campus on Thursday, got picked up from the airport and went on a campus tour with some other prospective students,” said Abraham. “We saw a lot of the facilities and campus in general, and then went to dinner at the head of the plant bio department’s house and talked to a bunch of professors in a casual setting and got to know everyone a little bit better.”

“This morning we had a big breakfast and learned more about the Huck Institutes, and then we started doing interviews. I’ve met with three professors so far today and have three more interviews later.”

“It’s been kind of a roller coaster ride,” said Jayanta Mondal, a prospective MCIBS student who graduated from India’s SRM University and is now a research intern at Harvard Medical School-MIT. “I’m meeting different people, interacting with people who are working on something I’m really passionate about, cancer research. My focus has always been to aspire to cure cancer, so interacting with people who are actually walking the road that I want to walk sometime in the future, that’s really inspiring.”

And what do those in charge of the Huck hope their guests to take away from their time at Penn State? For Dr. Kao, the visit is about selling the social and emotional connections, as well as the academics and research: “We want them to understand the excitement our faculty and students have for our program, the passion our faculty have for graduate education, the collegiality among our faculty, and the happiness of our students.”