Q&A: Matt Carter talks Grad School, Papers, and Effortless Perfection

By Meagan Goldman ‘16

Matt Carter’s contagious enthusiasm makes it easy to wake up for his 9 a.m. physiology class. Passionate about biology – and more specifically, neuroscience – Matt can make any lecture or discussion exciting. Last week, I sat down with him to learn about his personal experiences in the world of science. Here he divulges what he thought about neuroscience grad school and what it’s like to write a real scientific paper. Finally, he gives his opinion on the Williams myth of effortless perfection.

MG: Did you always know you wanted to go into science?

MC: Not really. I knew I always liked science, but I didn’t know I was going to turn it into a profession. I really liked humanities more. I liked writing, and not a lot of people know this about me, since it’s not something that usually comes up, but when I was deciding to go to grad school I was deciding either to go to school in neuroscience or film.

MG:  [Gesturing to the movie posters on the office walls] Really?Does that explain all the posters?

MC: Exactly. I love film as a medium, and I took film classes. I considered what it would be like to go into some sort of film career. I don’t know what that even meant – I don’t have this vision of turning into a major blockbuster filmmaker, but maybe filming for television or commercials. So no, I definitely did not have a complete desire to go science, but I liked science a lot, and I considered that I liked science in everything I did. I thought about medical school for a long time, but it all sort of crystallized towards the end of college that going to graduate school for neuroscience would be a good thing.

MG: For undergrad you went to Whitman, which is a small liberal arts school similar to Williams. And then you went to Stanford for grad school, and did a post-doc at University of Washington. How would you describe the differences between your undergrad and graduate experiences?

MC: They were very different. I can’t think of a bigger difference, and the differences are more than small school versus large school. Graduate school is kind of a misnomer. When I think of school, I think of teachers and students and a curriculum. Grad school doesn’t have a curriculum. Maybe for the first year there’s a curriculum, in that you take some classes in your area. But then over the next four, five, six years, you work on a dissertation, and then you write the dissertation.

I think another huge difference is that graduate school is the first time most people experience failure. It’s the first place where the results you get are not necessarily correlated with the effort you put in. At an undergraduate level, there are definitely some people who can have an easier or harder time than others, but I would say by and large, the grades you get are definitely correlated with the effort you put in.

But graduate school is the first time you realize that you could work really hard on a problem and still not solve the problem. There are learning experiences and ways to shape that luck. There are things that some people do right and some people do wrong, in terms of how likely you are to be able to solve a problem. But I think most grad students go through a phase where they work really hard on something and then it doesn’t come to be. It’s not because they’re doing something wrong, or they’re not smart, or they’re not trying hard – it’s just because the hypothesis is not true. Or maybe there’s a way to do something on paper, but in your hands it’s very difficult to get it to work.

The amazing thing is that when you graduate, everyone has learned how to deal with those problems, how to push through them and make something work. And when something goes right, it’s great because you know it’s yours. It’s also a neat feeling to have discovered something and then realize that you know more about that one thing than anybody else in the world.

MG: That’s a nice segue into your research. You published a paper in Nature. Did you start working on that project in grad school?

MC: No, actually. I think this gets at a problem in science. You go into science because you want to learn and you want to discover something. And then it turns out that there’s competition to publish in the best places. It’s the dream that you go to grad school and get a paper published in one of the big journals. It’s fantastic if you can do it, but I did not have it happen in graduate school. Some of my friends did, and I was very happy for them. I still feel like grad school went well for me – I had three papers published in journals and was proud of it. My paper wasn’t accepted to Nature until the last day I was a post-doc. I was leaving the lab, and we were having a going-away party, and we found out that it had been accepted. So it was a duel celebration – a going away party plus a paper-was-accepted-to-Nature party, and it was really great.

MG: An even bigger party. That’s amazing.

MC: Yes, an even bigger party. It was.

MG: Can you talk about the process of getting a paper published?

MC: It’s a totally different way of thinking about writing something than when you’re turning it in for a grade. It takes a lot of effort because it has to be flawless. When you write something for class, it’s not a big deal if there are typos – a comma in the wrong spot or a word misspelled. But you can’t have that when you’re submitting for peer-review.

When you’re done with the experiment, you might think, “I’ll just write that up and we’ll send it in,” but writing it up can take months. When you actually sit down to do it, you realize that there’re a hundred questions that pop up, and you have to figure out the best answers. For example, people might underestimate how long it’ll take to make figures. You’d think you’d just put it into a graphing program and it’ll give you a graph, but most of the figures that are in these journals take so long to optimize. For any data set, you can probably display it in a lot of different ways. You also have to realize that the chances of the paper’s being accepted might go up if you present it better. Not that you’re going to hide information, but you have to sell it. The best papers are really built up to a mystery.

And just because a paper gets rejected by reviewers doesn’t mean it’s not great – that’s the lesson of peer review.  A paper is almost never accepted the first time it’s submitted. It’ll be rejected with the understanding that it’ll be re-submitted again and it can be made better.

MG: My last question is about Williams. You’ve been here for almost two years now. What do you think Williams students do well, and what do you think they could work on?

MC: This is a great question. I ask myself this all the time. As a whole, Williams students are just amazing to me, and I love to be around them. People here are dynamic, they’re energetic, they want to learn things. Everybody’s doing well at something. Everybody wants to do well.

But that might actually contribute to what I could change about Williams. There’s this effortless perfection thing here. It would be very hard to change the perfection aspect of effortless perfection, because everybody does want to do their best at everything. To be honest, this exists at the professor level, too. I don’t think it gets talked about a lot, but I think professors are just like that. People are trying to be excellent teachers, they want to get excellent grants and excellent papers, and be all over campus.

If there’s something I could change, it’s the effortless part. I think we don’t do a good enough job showing off how much effort it takes to do these things.  It’s almost like you don’t give yourself permission to tell other people how stressed or exhausted you are. Admitting your weaknesses is something that a lot of people have a really hard time with.

Another thing I’ve heard is that it would be great for Williams students – and I’d also say this about faculty – to play a little more. I think so often people are focused on what they need to do to get an A or please the professor. It’s for totally valid reasons, but people are afraid to have some fun playing with something, and I think that’s where a lot of learning happens. So, if I could change anything about Williams students, it would be to admit imperfection and to spend more time playing.