A Day in the Life of a Graduate Student

Kim at work in the lab
Kim at work in the lab

By Martha Henry

The development of expertise requires sustained periods of practice. 10,000 hours is often cited as the amount of time necessary to achieve expert status. By that standard, Kim Armstrong, a graduate student in the lab of Max Essex at the Harvard AIDS Initiative, recently became an expert in HIV research. By her estimate, she has spent approximately 10,500 hours at her lab bench studying how drug resistance mutations affect the viral fitness of HIV.

Her dedication is fueled by both the desire to help end the AIDS epidemic and a life-long interest in biology. “Science was what I always wanted to do,” she says. Born in Covina, California, Kim moved often as a child, living with her family in Spokane, Seattle, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

After earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Utah, Kim arrived at the Harvard School of Public Health to pursue her interest in virus research. “Viruses are always one step ahead of us. There are antibiotics that work on almost all bacteria, but there are relatively few treatments for viruses. They’re such a small thing, yet they evade all of our brainpower and ingenuity.”

A typical day for Kim involves rising at 4:00 a.m. to go for a run, then arriving at the Essex Lab at 8:00 a.m. to put in a full day at her bench. To the non-scientist, what she does for the next eight to ten hours looks a lot like bartending. There are variously sized glass containers, much pouring of liquids and measuring of ingredients, some shaking and stirring and heating and freezing, all in the hopes that she’ll produce a useful concoction. Unlike a bartender, Kim doesn’t know the final results of her work ahead of time. When her research has been successful (see first article), she has learned something new about HIV that may ultimately help to produce more effective drugs or contribute to the design of an AIDS vaccine.

At the end of a long day, Kim drops off her DNA samples for sequencing before heading home. The sequences will be emailed to her in 48 hours, letting her know the results of the day’s work. She shares dinner with her husband and 12-year-old daughter, Samantha, who is also interested in science. They watch the Bruins game before heading to bed.

Adding to the body of knowledge in an incremental way is what most scientific research is all about. There are breakthrough moments, but they are far outnumbered by false starts, dead ends, and numerous technical challenges. A commitment such as Kim’s to carry out the daily work, along with the resources to make that work possible, is what will end the AIDS epidemic. Kim expects to graduate this year and to continue her research on HIV.

(Click here for a more detailed chronology of Kim’s day in the lab and the particular experiments she ran.)