Summer is quickly coming to an end, which means that the start to the school year is just around the corner. This can be quite a stressful time for teachers and students alike, especially if you are just starting college or transferring to a new school. Luckily for me, I’ll be returning to “Vandy” for my fourth and final year so the “back-to-school stress” will have no effect on me. It’s actually more excitement than anything as I’ll finally be back at my home away from home with some of the most amazing people you’ll ever meet. Anyway, I will also be joining a new lab, which can be a little intimidating. Nevertheless, I’m sure that this feeling of anxiety or nervousness is something that my new PI will share as well. It was quite obvious when I had my interview that my PI was a little unsure about letting an undergrad into her lab. She would constantly tell me that they had never allowed an undergrad to join, and that she didn’t know of any undergrads in her colleagues’ labs either. So it was quite understandable that she would be a little apprehensive about letting a student come in and work on very expensive projects with really no “real lab” experience. However, this feeling was definitely mutual as I was beyond nervous that I would just mess everything up and waste thousands of dollars of her hard-earned grant money. There were certain kinks that we had to work through to make the experience the best it could possibly be for both parties involved.
A few blunders that I had to face focused mainly on what I already knew and my capacity to learn. I had already discussed all of my previous classes with my PI and about where I stood on basic lab techniques. However the rest of the crew didn’t really know anything about me. One thing I will never forget is my first week there. I was doing a miniprep and after I had my sample I went to check the concentration on the nanodrop. I was just about ready to log off when another lab member came over and asked if I knew what DNA was. It was one of those moments where you just have to smile and respond politely. He of course didn’t mean it in a negative way, but was just trying to gauge what I knew and what he needed to explain. In the end, I was not only working on my project but a side project of his as well. Needless to say it was somewhat awkward, but definitely necessary to let the others test your knowledge so that they can give you as much, or as little, help as you need.
Another thing that is important is patience. It’s almost inevitable that we are going to mess something up along the way. Whether it is simply knocking over a test tube rack, or setting the centrifuge too high and losing all of our samples. We know that we’ll mess up at some point, but it’s important to remember that we are new at this. We are aware that the docs and post-docs who work in the lab can probably do most of their protocols from memory, but newbies need to be taught at least once. This is an area where putting in the extra 10-15 minutes can really be beneficial in the end. The whole purpose of undergrads working in the lab is to give us experience so that we can have a leg-up in grad school. So while most of us will try our best to remember that procedure you just finished in 5 minutes with a slew of almost illegible bottles, it’s always helpful to have written instructions and a patient mentor. Fortunately for me, I had a great mentor, and have been thinking about a few simple things that my previous PI did that really made me feel like a part of the family.
One of the first things that my PI did was to lay out the whole project and explain what was expected of me. This was huge. At first I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be doing, how much I should already know, or how many YouTube videos I needed to watch to be able to mimic different lab techniques. She was great at taking the extra time to really explain the procedures to me, and introducing me to the other lab members who were always more than willing to help with a protocol or question.
Another thing that my PI managed well were our lab meetings. A lot of my friends who also worked in labs either never attended lab meetings or only presented at the end of the year before our graded presentation. My PI always assigned me a day to present for the whole hour. Now, I can’t say that this was always an exciting part of being in the lab, because having to talk about my project for an hour to people who are way smarter than me was a little bit of a daunting task. It was always quite stressful and nerve-wracking as they weren’t really afraid of correcting mistakes. Nevertheless it did make me feel like a viable member of the lab, and even helped me with my presentation style and how to word things to sound more authoritative.
The last important thing to remember about year-long or semester-long students is that we like to know where our projects are headed. This is to say that it is important to know the significance or overall goal of our projects. We already know that we are not going to see the end result and that keeping us in the loop might seem like a waste of time, but knowing the impact of projects makes them more exciting, at least it does for me. If I’m engaged in a project, spending an extra hour, or weekend, in the lab doesn’t seem as bad. It is one thing to get experience in tissue culture or bench work (which is still great), but knowing the big picture can help us connect the dots.
It was also nice when my PI would ask me where I saw the project going, or if I had any other expectations or ideas to add into the final goal. She was always great in keeping me involved and listening to my thoughts, even if it didn’t mesh with her end goal. It at least let me know that she cared about my opinion and saw me as a member of the team, and not just an interloper. All of these factors really helped me feel more like a part of the family, and I can only hope that this next year works out just as well.
Vanderbilt Class of 2014
Deanna is an intern at Goldbio during the summer of 2013.
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