A lab meeting is less of an audition, and more of a casual conversation

When entering the world of research for the first time, there are aspects that might seem scary at first, and interacting and working in your first lab meeting is no exception. As I share my story, hopefully it can leave you more confident to handle your meeting with poise.

During a seemingly regular Sunday noon, I had sent a nerve-wracking email to a faculty advisor that I had wished to work with at the time (and blessed to continue working with today). About an hour later, he sent a response that would send me bursting out of my chair, while numbing my body at the same time due to the fear that was building up in my body. At the time I was both excited, yet nervous of the potential embarrassment that I might showcase during the meeting.

Fast forward to the next day, and after hours of not being able to sleep, practicing my slurred speech, and trying to calm my hand’s involuntary shaking, I was right at the front door of the lab trailer and decided to knock with mild hesitation. After a second or so, I was greeted by this kind and amazing lady who I would soon realize to be a senior scientist in the lab. She would greet me and ask who I was, and in response, my lips would rumble, barely uttering my name. Recognizing my name, she told me that the lab was expecting me and showed me to the meeting.

There it was: A room full of postdocs, graduate students, a few undergrads, and of course, the faculty advisory himself, all sat around this huge oval table filled with laptops and data from their own respective projects. As I overheard each person talk about their own complex work, my brain would sink, doubting myself for a second, and questioning whether I deserve to be in this room in the first place.  I was afraid to make a fool of myself by uttering some information that would have conveyed my lack of expertise in their research, let alone physics itself.

As the meeting started, I was told to introduce myself. From this moment on, I will give a couple pieces of advice that come from my experience after introducing myself:

  1. These scientists are not what they seem on paper and on the big screen: Throughout the course of the meeting, these scientists– and especially the faculty advisor– would constantly make jokes that were very funny and, of course, very science-y. I thought it was hilarious and a bit caught off guard as I thought these scientists to be very stern and always serious, but it was always informal and very chill. It was also very funny to note that that senior scientist had “warned” me that they would be making jokes all the time as that is just personality of the atmosphere during their lab meetings. Of course, not all labs are like this, but the point here is that these researchers are very human and not the robots that they are stereotyped to be.
  2. It is ok to not know, and it is also ok to not explain using the most complex vocabulary: When going into this meeting the one question that I am certain all lab meetings will ask on the first day is, “is there anything specific that you would like to do in our research?” I am also certain that they will not ask you that until the end of the meeting. The reason why I say this is because they understand that you are not an expert in what they are doing, nor are you obligated to be an expert on the first day. They try to ask you in the end because they want you to listen to what they are doing and get comfortable with their research. Also, they would encourage to explain who you are and what you want as simply as possible. As I said, they are human too, not a walking dictionary, and they also want to understand how you will work in their team as well and talking to them in a complicated way might leave a bad imprint on how you work with others.

 As I left the meeting, many of the stigmas that would make these researchers intimating had been torn down, and I would look forward to the next meeting that would come. They welcomed me with open arms, as I am sure will also happen to you in your first meeting. Like I said, not all labs are the same, But I hope this story will give you a positive outlook in your experience. you may be anxious at first, but at the end, know that it is all worth it.

The Building Block of Every Laboratory: The Kimwipe

I look forward to going into my lab every day. This summer I am working in the Susannah Porter Earth Science Laboratory under post-doctoral researcher, Leigh Anne Riedman, to analyze sponge-like fossils collected from the Australian island of Tasmania. Everyone in the lab is extremely nice and is willing to answer any questions I may have. I’m honored to be a part of the research done in this lab.

Although there are so many great things about my lab, the thing I look forward to the most is using a nice Kimwipe on my fossil sample when I spend long hours looking through the microscope. Now, you must know what I’m talking about. Every lab I’ve stepped foot in is stocked with dozens upon dozens of those beautiful, bright mint green boxes filled with thin, yet durable 1-ply Kimberly-Clark™ Professional Professional Kimtech Science™ Kimwipes™.

I go through approximately twenty Kimwipes a day. While I am an Environmental Studies student and that is no favor to the environment, those tissues are crucial to the work I do in lab every day. The microscope work I do requires something known as oil immersion. This technique is used when using a microscope objective of 63x or 100x as opposed to 20x or 40x. Basically, oil immersion is used for looking at things more zoomed in. The lenses for this objective requires you to immerse the sample you’re looking at in a very thick oil. I place a drop of oil on the area on the slide that I’m looking at and twist the microscope stage until the lens just barely touches the oil. After examining the specimen using this technique, the oil on the slide needs to be wiped off with, you guessed it, a Kimwipe.

Now, the Kimwipe is no ordinary tissue. Unlike a regular Kleenex tissue, the Kimwipe anti-static technology reduces lint and electrostatic discharge. That information was, in fact, provided by the Kimwipe website– I was honestly unsure why they were preferred until I decided to write this. This ensures that I’m looking at important fossils under the microscope rather than larger chunks of fibrous Kleenex.

As you read this blog post, you may be asking yourself, “Why is she writing her blog post about a seemingly meaningless tissue that they sell for eight dollars in the chemistry stockroom?” That, my friend, is an expected question. But, as I was brainstorming topics for this blogpost, I began to think about what holds a laboratory together. It may be the comradery, the dedication, the snack drawer, but I got to thinking that the Kimwipe is truly the foundation of every laboratory. No matter if it’s biology, earth science, or general chemistry, every lab depends on these tissues. The backbone of so much of the groundbreaking research done on campus is a box of these very wipes.

So, I hope the next time you pull a Kimwipe out of the box and wipe off oil, dust or liquids, you think of what that tissue means for your research.

Note: This post is not sponsored by Kimwipes in any way, but I think both myself and my lab mentor are not opposed to it.

It’s Okay to Not Feel Okay

If there’s one thing I can say about this summer, it’s that I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned a lot about chemistry (working in a chemistry lab and all) but surprisingly, I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare for my future, career skills, and, probably the most important of all, general life lessons. Of course, every time you go to a new workplace and work with new people you learn different things about life but one of the most important lessons I learned was actually from one of the Eureka seminars.

This seminar was titled “Grad School A to Z” so I thought it would be a boring talk about how to be a good student and how perfect everyone needed to be. I was surprised when the grad students we were talking to started talking about something called impostor syndrome and how they really struggled with grad school because they felt like they didn’t belong. Now I know I’m only an undergrad and they were talking about how much harder grad school was so I probably shouldn’t have taken too much comfort in their words, but I did. I’m someone who always likes to know what I’m doing, I don’t ask for help unless I absolutely need to even when it comes to homework problems. So I guess it’s no surprise that when my grades fell a bit spring quarter and I started working with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met (both graduates, doctorates, and undergrads) I felt really overwhelmed and quite frankly, not good enough. The entire summer I felt like I always had to be the very best version of myself. That’s not a bad thing, striving to be the best that you can be is good, but I feel like I’ve been hiding parts of myself that weren’t good enough and unfortunately, that’s been a lot.

As fantastic as the summer’s been it’s also been the most stressful summer that I’ve ever had and it’s all because of this underlying feeling of not being good enough. When I went to that meeting and heard them talking about feeling that way it made me feel a lot better. No one is perfect and while I have a lot that I need to improve, I’m not alone. Those people happened to be talking about grad school but it applies to undergrads too. School is hard, life is hard. If it’s easy then maybe you aren’t pushing yourself enough. Now I’m not normally this cheesy but I spent a lot of my summer feeling overwhelmed and alone and terrified. For anyone doing a summer program like Eureka just know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, I promise you aren’t alone

More than Cell Culture

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about how our lab experiences have differed, her being in chemistry and me, in biology. The physical things we have done have been vastly different (I can’t imagine running a reaction for 24 hours), but I found that the things that have happened to us have been very similar. I mentioned to her that I was frustrated because I had done a reaction, following all of the steps my mentor took, standing beside him, using the same tools, and still somehow, I ended up with much less product than he did. I thought that I was just inept and clumsy and figured I had made some sort of error along the way, but much to my surprise my friend said something very similar had happened to her. It wasn’t that I was happy that she messed up too, but in a place full of such intelligent people who seem to know what they are doing all the time, it was kind of comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one having hiccups.

I have also started to notice little things about myself that I’ve picked after working in a lab for almost 2 months. Cell culturing is very sensitive and it’s important to be as sterile as possible when doing it. Gloves, spray everything with ethanol, use a new pipette every time, don’t have the plate uncovered for too long, don’t wave your hand over the open plate, and put the cells back in the incubator as soon as you can, all while being as careful as possible and NOT clumsy (very hard for me). The first few weeks, my mentor had a fixed view on my technique and would have to keep reminding me of all of these rules. When I managed to contaminate cells with bacteria, I realized I had to step up my game. With many hours of practice doing this, I have gotten much better at culturing cells swiftly and carefully, so much I may overdo it with the ethanol sometimes. I have also, incidentally, started applying these techniques to my life outside of lab, like putting the lid of the butter immediately back on when cooking, or throwing away new disposable plates after I even slightly make them touch something that’s not food. I will continue to perfect my technique and see what other weird things I pick up.

Are Professors Really People Too or Just Three Lizards in a Trench-coat?

As a student it is not infrequent to be advised to remember that “professors are people too” and they want you to approach them when you need assistance.  Although I certainly understood this intellectually, for someone shy as me, emotionally this advice was difficult to put in motion.  During my freshman year, I was always nervous to approach them to ask for homework help, or talk about research, or really anything, in a way I had never felt around my high school teachers.

It’s not hard to see what makes professors intimidating. They’re experts in their fields, with years’ worth of experience and knowledge. In class the professors are lecturing in front of a hall full of students they don’t know, and to students who don’t know them. It can be the recipe for nothing but an impersonal experience. I was terrified that if I messed up or misspoke the professor would think I wasn’t worth their time. However, it didn’t take long for that perception to change.

I think that doing research and working under the guidance of postdocs and professors was the only way I was going to overcome those fears. It is difficult to be too intimidated by the people you discuss movies and exchange funny stories with over lunch. Slowly, but surely I grew more comfortable around my coworkers. Coworkers! – How weird it is to work in the same place as people who are normally your mentors, teachers, a part of a different world.

Now that I’m not quite so fear-filled at the very thought of interacting with them, the grad students, post-docs, and professors I’ve worked with this summer have taught me so much, merely by sharing their experiences. I’ve learned about the process of getting published and all its intricacies and difficulties. I’ve learned about why coding is important and how much we can learn from other disciplines. I’ve also learned about how important it is to stay focused on the big picture and not get lost in the little details.

Now, that is a lot to learn in one summer, let alone cover in one post, so I’ll focus on the last point. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details you deal with daily when you’ve been working on a project all summer. You get focused on the problem that you are currently working on and forget the end-goal, the purpose of the project overall. This can be dangerous. It makes it difficult to stay mentally engaged in the project and it makes it easy to go down the wrong path.

First you need to actually understand the big picture in order to remember it. When I first started I just had vague idea and set about accomplishing my goal one step at a time. That quickly went downhill as I consistently got stuck on problems with no idea how to move forward, and spent time on the wrong things with no good understanding of what I was trying to accomplish. Going back and reading papers and talking to my mentors helped solidify what they were looking for from my project.

I’ve found the best way to keep the big picture in mind is to talk to people who know nothing about my research. From the advice of my mentors and the reactions of friends and the people I meet at my internship events, I’ve realized that people aren’t all that interested in the simulations I work on daily. They’re not interested in hearing about the bug I solved today in my code. They want to hear the cool stuff about stars exploding and black holes. The things that can excite really anyone about space. What you tell them may only be 5% of what you actually spend time on, but it often illustrates the overarching goals of your research.

Overall, I’ve found that there is a lot to be learned from those with more experience. You’ll find many who are willing to teach you, not just about the subject you’re researching, but all the other knowledge they gained in getting where they are today.