Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What we both need to do

Warning: Although not completely a bitchfest, this post contains some material that could be construed as ranting and/or general bitching.

There are some things you just don't think until you experience them. I have an undergrad for the summer. We're a little over halfway through his tenure at BRI. It has been a learning experience for me-partly in realizing some of the things that drive me insane. Here are a few lessons for students new to research.

Note: For the following bullets, the second person personal pronouns (i.e. you, your) refer to the trainee and the first person personal pronouns (i.e. I, me, my) refer an individual in an advising/supervisory capacity, namely me.

1. Drop the slang. 'Yo' is not an appropriate salutation, nor is 'word' a proper signal for 'I understand and will get to work on that'. You would not address the PI in such a manner (at least I hope you have enough sense not to), and I ask that you afford me a similar (if not equal) level of respect. I may not be much older, but I have two more degrees than you, and you are more or less working for me.

2. This ain't your gen chem lab. It doesn't matter how well you did in your undergrad lecture courses or if you aced all your lab reports. Work in a research lab sans detailed manual is a different beast entirely. Although there are plenty of egos in science (including mine), they have (despite my previous rant) generally earned their place. Yours hasn't, so please check it at the door.

3. Re-learn dimensional analysis* and units. I understand that it may have been a while since you did molarity concentrations and dilution series, especially if you're taking courses with a more biological slant.** That being said, after a week or so of working in a lab, doing such calculations almost daily, you should be able to do these independently. It may take you more time than it takes me. You might have to write everything out longhand. That's fine, but you should be able to do it. If you get an answer that doesn't make sense, more than likely it's a problem with your units or conversion, not because 'it doesn't work when you do it that way'. It does work--check your math.

*If you're going to stay in science or medicine, this is one of the most important concepts you will ever use.

**Could everyone just get on board with the whole molar system? Do you realize how irritating it is to translate pg/ml and mg/kg when you're trying to compare two compounds directly? There are a few rare instances where there are legitimate reasons to base measurements on mass. I know I'm fighting a losing battle.

4. Read the protocol carefully and do as it says. You're not always going to get a nice, detailed procedure written up as if it came out of one of your lab manuals in undergrad (refer back to #2). On the occasion that you do, read it-yes, the whole thing-and follow it.

5. Record and repeat. Research is often about repetition-repeating experiments, repeating protocols, etc. Memory recall for most humans is pretty murky. You should record a procedure in great detail in your lab notebook the first time you do it. When you are asked to do that same procedure again (either with the same or different material), refer back to that procedure in your notebook. I don't mind reviewing a procedure or 'reminding' you of a detail the second go-round. I am, however, going to start getting irritated when you ask me the same questions or leave out a crucial component the 3rd and Nth (where N>3) time.

6. Listen to the words coming out of my mouth-and apply them. I know that sometimes I may ramble or think out loud. However, when I'm giving you specific instructions, pay attention, especially when such instructions are in the form "Make sure you _______".

7. Research is the application of knowledge. Meaning you should apply things that you already know. When you ask me a question to which you should be able to determine the answer if you think about it for more than a microsecond, then I'm going to play dumb (especially when you're participating in a competitive undergrad summer program at BRI). This also means that you should understand the basic concepts behind an experiment, not just a list of actions. If you've never learned it before, I will teach you.

8. Except in cases of emergencies--If I am intently working on what appears to be a potentially complicated task, wait for me to acknowledge your presence before talking to me. If you have set the lab on fire, spilled a large amount of a toxic or corrosive chemical, or initiated the next Chernobyl, by all means, interrupt me-my experiment doesn't mean much if either one of us is at risk of injury or death. HOWEVER, if you want to know whether you should use the Teletubby purple tubes or the Tarheel blue tubes (or some question of similar urgency), be patient. I'm not ignoring you just to be rude. If you're concerned that I have not seen you hovering nearby, at least wait until I have set down my pipette/tube/whatever happens to be in my hand at the time.

9. Respect my personal space. You may not have a problem with people being close enough to hear their breathing. I do. If you can't hear me, ask me to speak up. If you have trouble seeing something, I can hand you the tube. I like my space. I get uncomfortable and irritable when I don't get it. Take a step back. Thank you.


I've learned some important things about myself and my style, as well. In grad school, I supervised first year grad students on rotations, taught postdocs and other grad students techniques, and even had a summer undergrad. However, I didn't think about my role so much. Here are some things I need to do for future trainees.

1. Establish my expectations. Perhaps some of the points above are not intuitive and perhaps I did not spell them out clearly. As a supervisor/mentor, it is in my best interest (and the trainee's) to clearly define my expectations for the project and the trainee at the outset.

2. Provide a lesson in 'good laboratory practice' (GLP). Most students do not know how to keep a lab notebook. Hell, a lot of postdocs don't know how to keep a lab notebook. What information should you record? A large volume of data is saved on computers these days-how do you link data on a computer to an experiment in your notebook? Tubes are small; you can't fit all the information on the cap/side-how do you ensure that you (and those wishing to use your materials after your departure) track the pertinent information? Record keeping is just one aspect of GLP. There's also safety, ethics... dimensional analysis :) Taking a few hours to cover this in detail at the beginning of a rotation would probably save me a lot of time in the long run.

3. Be more direct and less passive-aggressive. Or, in other words, voice my problems/concerns directly instead of getting pissed off and venting to Paramed and the blogosphere. This is a HUGE issue for me. Perhaps part of it comes from my Southern upbringing, the idea that I should be polite. Perhaps part of it derives from me not wanting to come off as an asshole. Either way I need to work on this. Otherwise I will end up like Bear, bitching at people that I'm not actually irritated with for things that I'm not really pissed off about.

4. Review the project after there has been some time for the information to sink in. The first few days/weeks on a new project (especially if it's your first research experience) can be overwhelming. There's a lot of information to absorb on both a practical and conceptual level. After you've gotten your feet wet, I should go over the objectives and the techniques of the project with you to make sure you know what you're doing.

Of course, I have much more to learn about being an adviser or mentor, but this is a start.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

If you're going to stay in science or medicine, [dimensional analysis] is one of the most important concepts you will ever use.

Yep. We spend pretty much the entire first week of our first-year medical physiology curriculum reviewing dimensional analysis.

Anonymous said...

Amen to the personal space issue, people seem to think that because I'm small and friendly they should be closer to me. Drives me crazy!

biochem belle said...

Seriously! I think we should develop a new anti-personal space intrusion device. Yes, the APSI. It will work sort of like an invisible fence, and when someone enters the sphere where only really close friends and spouses should be.... they get zapped!