Growing Pains and Stepping Stones


Growing Pains and Stepping Stones

—from the Researcher's bench

After you reach certain benchmarks in the lab, your research supervisor will transition from the role of supervisor to that of a research mentor.

Accompanying this change in roles will be the growing responsibility to do tasks formerly completed by your research supervisor. This will be unsettling at first--especially when you quickly realize that your success is now in your hands. Long ago, one of my undergrads described this path to self-reliance as "Growing Pains" and it immediately became part of our lab’s lingo.

The signs below may seem insignificant as they happen, but they are meaningful stepping stones for any new researcher working toward self-reliance.

You’re put in charge of your to-do list
When you arrive at the lab and your mentor says, “Remind me what you’re doing today,” she probably already knows, but wants you to start organizing your lab tasks without her help. This responsibility is often a critical step toward working on an independent research project instead of as an assistant to a labmate. Time management skills in the lab are also essential to master if you plan to attend graduate school, so the more practice you have as an undergrad the better off you’ll be.

You’re instructed to 'choose whatever works'
I often tell my students that two scientist in a lab lead to three (or more) potential strategies on how to tackle a research question. In the beginning of your research experience, your mentor will tell you which approach to take. At some point, he will expect you to weigh the options and choose a strategy to follow. You might not pick the right one the first time, but it’s important that you don’t let that possibility stop you from making a decision and taking the leap.

You're encouraged to take the lead in analyzing results
Even though you’ll find it frustrating at times, and will wish she would just give you the answer, this mentoring tactic will help you build both analytical and creative thinking skills. In addition, these interactions will help you make a more meaningful connection with your project and the science the lab does. I guarantee that this will be nerve-racking and the simplest questions will make your heart pound as you stumble through the answer. But the more practice you have interpreting and explaining results to your mentor the easier it will become.

You’re asked to make the stocks everyone uses
No researcher wants to redo an experiment because a lab stock was made incorrectly, so most won’t use one if they question the ability of the person who prepared it. If you're asked to make stocks for your labmates, don’t let your nerves get the best of you. Double-check your math, ask for help when needed, and take the time to do it right. After you’ve made a few stocks, the fear of messing up everyone’s experiment will fade.

You’re asked to train another labmate
In addition to demonstrating solid research skills, being asked to train someone means that you work well with your labmates, and are ready to take on a leadership role in the lab. You’ll probably feel nervous and self-conscious the first few times you teach someone, but that is to be expected. However, not every undergrad in the lab will be asked to step into this role, so if you are asked to do this, it’s particularly meaningful.

If your path to self-reliance in the lab is a difficult journey, rest assured that all new challenges will be temporary. With practice, and the determination to excel, you’ll move past the awkwardness as your research experience becomes more rewarding, and the growing pains will become significantly less painful.

A version of this article appeared in the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology's publication ASBMB Today.