Taproot S4E3: How to mastermind experimental designs and your graduate applications

In this episode, we talk with Dr. Scott Barolo about how he made a popular board game into a teaching tool, and we start a two-part discussion about the grad school application process.

Scott gained his BSc at Penn State University and his Ph.D. in biology at the University of California, San Diego. He was then a postdoctoral fellow at the same university and started his lab in 2003 at the University of Michigan Medical School. Scott’s lab studies transcriptional pathways, repressors, and enhancers in Drosophila melanogaster. He has been the director of the graduate training program in Biological Sciences (PIBS) since 2012. He is also a co-founder of the “9 Reply Guys” – inspired by #MeTooSTEM – where he humorously categorizes unconstructive Twitter behavior of men/women into 9 types.

In this episode, we discuss a publication with Amy Strom, who was then an undergraduate student, titled “Using the Game of Mastermind to Teach, Practice, and Discuss Scientific Reasoning Skills”, published in PLOS One in 2011. We discuss how he “forced” his students to play this codebreaker game and how it helped them think about good experimental design, hypothesis testing, and biases.

This paper helped provide some insight into aspects of scientific design that are often not explicitly explained to trainees. In the same vein, we ask Scott to describe the process of applying to graduate school. We talk about the advantages of taking off a couple of years first and getting lab experience to see if graduate school is a good fit. We get into a time machine and recall our own applications and how not to randomly apply to universities and programs.

Scott says when he evaluates large stacks of applications, being an overachiever is great but the applications he remembers are from people who are different in some way. He recommends students to ‘show a bit of themselves’ in personal statements. They should not be afraid to share some of their out-of-academia interests either!

The conversation was so great we decided to split the episode into two sections so look out for the continuation in our next episode where Scott demystifies the interview process!

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A transcript of this episode generously provided by Joe Stormer can be found here.


Strom, A.R. and Barolo, S., 2011. Using the game of mastermind to teach, practice, and discuss scientific reasoning skills. PLoS biology, 9(1), p.e1000578. https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000578

Barolo Lab website: https://www.barololab.net/ 

Should you go to grad school? (Via Plantae) https://plantae.org/blog/should-you-go-to-grad-school-from-science-careers/

Twitter link to 9 reply guys introduction: https://twitter.com/sbarolo/status/1036685010869407744 








The Taproot is the podcast that digs beneath the surface to understand how scientific publications in plant biology are created. In each episode, co-hosts Liz Haswell and Ivan Baxter take a paper from the literature and talk about the story behind the science with one of its authors.

Subscribe to The Taproot podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

Questions, feedback, suggestions?  Contact us at taproot@plantae.org.


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