Helping Hand and Lab Camaraderie

Our latest lab member joined just before this summer. One of the first things she said to me while in lab was that she found it baffling how much each of us knew about our projects, how much expertise and understanding we gained from working on something tangential or unmentioned in chemistry courses that were normally offered by the department. I laughed and told her that, quite frankly, I had the same question when I attended a regular lab meeting for the first time last year. The answer that I found over the past year is simply that you learn an impressive amount of stuff in lab but you can’t see how until you try working independently for a period of time. That’s why it all seemed so effortless and mysterious. Contrary to the conscious assignments of problem solving to which you typically exert yourself in class, lab learning occurs every second as you figure out what to do next and why. You acquaint yourself with principles and ideas of science by going through them repeatedly while working with real substance and real machines, and by doubting yourself and examining your understanding through experimentation. When you can’t understand something, you read on and on without thinking about it as an assignment, and you go to the professor for some clarification, explanation and direction. In a word, you don’t even realize you are learning.

But there is one more way through which you can learn a whole lot that would appear rather flimsy compared to hands-on investigation, reading or consulting the professor, unless you’ve really worked in a chemistry lab. That is peer help.

I dare to say I learned my “way” in lab from my peer mentor, who just graduated this year to attend the chemistry Ph.D. program at Stanford. The first things you will learn from your mentor seem pitifully tiny. They seem so insignificant that you don’t feel like you are doing science for the first few weeks or months in lab. Well true, you are not, because you are not prepared yet until you get all the little things, like where you may find syringes of all shape and sizes. Then you start to pick up and store commands and procedures like a computer does when it is being programmed. It is definitely an effortful process, for you feel that information is etched into your brain through mental reinforcement. Sometimes you have to try a couple times for the new information to stay somewhat permanently, while a few failures might only strengthen the effort.

Beyond the muscle memory and the swallowed procedures, there’s something less latent from your mentor that you might or might not pick up, what I call lab mood. Without doubt something as personal as mood could never be identical from one lab member to another, but how one should feel about things that one has never experienced is definitely influenced by how another, more experienced person reacts. I remembered once I was in lab with my mentor and we broke a quartz cuvette, an exquisite piece of handicraft that easily costs hundred of dollars. The very fact that I’m using the pronoun “we” instead of “he” or “I” says something about how we customarily process these little transgressions. In fact I don’t even remember who actually dropped it. All I remember is that we decided to call it a we-mistake and cleaned up the mess together. Our professor was extremely lenient in that respect because she never went after us if we broke some pricey piece of glassware. The initial panic about breaking something expensive was therefore smoothed out by the shared responsibility. In other words, I learned to calm down in lab whenever something sudden happens even if it contradicts my intuition. That’s a lab mood that I learned from my mentor. Other such lab moods include the excitement I feel when I see “good data” – of course you first need to learn to tell what counts as good data – and also the contemplative low I have to take on when some previously unseen anomaly appears. The latter is especially important because I tended to dive into a passive aggressive approach, namely to experiment repeatedly until “I get it right” instead of slowing down a bit to reflect. A thoughtful, yet not inactive, low mood greatly helped.

During the course of this summer, experienced lab members helped me daily. One of them was a graduated senior staying to finish off her project. She knew everything in lab and she was practically running the lab while our professor was gone for vacation. When morale was low she was kind enough to have long conversations with me about culture, life, and essentially anything that would give me a break from thinking about lab. It seemed to me that only when lab was not deemed to be paramount could my efficiency be highest and my concentration most undiluted. So having the pleasure to rant about whatever in lab, or to receive serious responses to my awkward jokes, truly fostered daily lab work.

Now that I’m talking about the help that I received working in our lab, I can’t help but summarize all the great friendships that lubricate the gears of lab research as a unique camaraderie. It’s about the shared experience, the inside jokes, and the empathetic nods when your NMR scan is as messy as ever. Every Wednesday afternoon we get ice-cream together, judge unforgivingly, and always come to the conclusion that we make the best ice-cream of all. And then of course there’s the tradition of having lab lunch on Friday. Picking how to split into two cars or telling the attaché from another lab that we don’t usually do lab dates, all these little things I simply can’t stop talking about. Summer research was such a beautiful experience in retrospect and the camaraderie formed within this eclectic group of personalities contributed an amazing amount to that experience.

Comments

  1. I agree so much about the importance of lab camaraderie. I can’t imagine doing my work without that support system, or joining a lab that didn’t already have great working relationships with each other. Lab friendships result in better lab work.

  2. I could not agree more with you. I could not have learned as much as I did in one summer had it not been for the countless hours I spent in Harbron lab with a wonderful group of people around me. Every time I was frustrated due to a mishap, I was able to laugh about it with someone. Even better, hearing that I was repeating the same mistakes they once made helped tremendously.