Empty bench syndrome

Here’s to all the undergrad research mentors who said
goodbye to great students and felt that little pang of sadness
as they cleared the bench for a new researcher

When the bench is empty, a mentor should feel proud for giving an undergrad the tools and confidence to thrive in the research world.P. H. Grey

In May, an undergrad who spent three years in our lab finished her last experiment and made the last update in her lab notebook. It was a bittersweet day.

Madi joined the lab the summer after her first year of college. Like most undergrads I work with, she was unfamiliar with the concepts and inexperienced with the skills of molecular research. In her first summer, Madi put in 30 hours a week at the bench learning how to pipette, pour agarose gels, perform cloning reactions, safely run the autoclave, keep a proper notebook, troubleshoot techniques and interpret results. She learned, practiced and refined core techniques that she would use for her projects over the next three years.

Throughout her time in the lab, Madi, a microbiology major and premed student, worked hard. She optimized protein expression of several clones, completed actin assays on the confocal microscope and analyzed the data using the statistical programming language known as R. She used her expertise to help train other undergrads and always stepped up to take on extra responsibility.

The Monday after she left, when I glanced at the empty bench across from me, I felt a pang of sadness. Training, advising and mentoring Madi hadn’t been my job as much as it had been my privilege – as is often the case.

As a full-time research scientist and mentor in David Oppenheimer’s lab at the University of Florida, I think it’s important to get to know my undergrads so that I can help them reach both their personal and professional goals. It’s also important so I can direct them to specific opportunities that will help them get the most out of their college experiences.

For example, I encouraged Madi to apply to the Frost Scholarship Programme, which funds science, technology, engineering and math students to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Oxford. Because I had taken the time to get to know Madi, I knew she was a perfect fit. When she was accepted to Oxford on a full scholarship, the entire lab celebrated.

By the time any undergrad’s research experience comes to an end, I’ve been proud of his or her accomplishments many times over – and not just because of poster presentations, fellowships or research awards. It’s also the little things, such as when an undergrad finds the self-discipline to master a difficult technique or says to me, “Of my two options for the next research step, I think I should choose No. 1 because …” or when an undergrad analyzes a result and, before I’ve even weighed in, realizes the next question that should be asked.

What I want students to know is this: As an undergrad in the lab, the impact you make might be more than the results and data you contribute. The bigger the impact your research mentor makes on you, well, the bigger the impact you’re probably making on her.

Paris Grey P. H. Grey works as a molecular biologist and is co-creator of Undergrad in the Lab.