Growing pains

Undergrads assuming new responsibilities in the lab,from making stocks to recycling pipette tip boxes, can experience growing pains. IMAGE COURTESY OF PARIS GREY

After new undergrads reach certain benchmarks in the lab, their research supervisors often transition from the role of supervisor to that of a research mentor. Accompanying this change in roles is the growing responsibility of an undergrad to do tasks formerly completed by the research supervisor. This can be disconcerting for the undergrads, who quickly realize their success is now in their own 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 rather than acting as an assistant to a lab-mate. 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 scientists in a lab lead to three or more potential strategies on how to tackle a research question. In the beginning ofyour 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.

Your mentor asks you 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. It will also help you make a more meaningful connection with your project and the science the lab does.I guarantee that this new role 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 selfconscious the first few times you teach someone, but that is to be expected.Not every undergrad in the lab will be asked to step into this role, so it’s particularly meaningful if you are asked to do this.

If the path to self-reliance is difficult for you as an undergrad researcher, 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.

P. H. Grey Paris Grey works as a molecular biologist and is co-creator of Undergrad in the Lab. She is co-author of the new book "Getting In: The Insider's Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience."