In the Lab: Mistakes, Research Creatures and (No) Results

“Here’s the glucose.” I handed over a large white bottle.

“That’s glycine.”

The post-bac student gave me an incredulous look before we broke into peals of laughter.

Grabbing glycine instead of glucose is only one of the many mistakes I’ve made so far in the lab as a summer intern. They say that research is all about mistakes, but there are different… severities. There’s “I put in 1 extra microliter of reagent” to “I touched a carcinogen, maybe?” to, of course, “Did I just pour something very important down the drain?” It’s a real ride-or-die way to spend ten weeks. While the rest of my friends are living it up in California or Tokyo or Seoul or Poughkeepsie, I’m stuffed in an extremely chilly laboratory in New Brunswick trying to not destroy my sample that took the last five days to prepare. 

Sound like a crappy time? Yeah, kinda. I won’t be getting tanner that’s for sure.

For the past few years, I’ve been seriously contemplating a career in science. Or more specifically, I’ve been contemplating about not having a career in science. When I was younger, I never even imagined myself outside of biology. My father is a biological researcher himself and I grew up bubbling with thousands of questions that he always encouraged. Since I thought scientists just asked questions all day, I assumed as a child that this career would make me happy and I never questioned a career in STEM for myself.

A career in science, or in most other professions for that matter, is dependent on factors beyond just a love for intellectual pursuit. I realized my own prior naivety and became cynical accepting the life of a scientist…while still somehow attached to my hopes and ideals about research itself. That’s why I decided to use this summer to determine for once and for all whether I would sign myself up for a lifetime of research, with all of its strings attached. I hope by the end of this summer series, I’ll be able to say for sure how I definitely feel about research. The first piece will be about the people I’ve met so far in my lab and the lab culture.

Researchers

Labs in general only have a loose hierarchy (as opposed to a hospital or a company) but certain ranks still exist. At the very top are PIs or principal investigators. These are the people who run the whole lab and decide what experiments to run, when and where to publish data, what equipment to buy, who to hire, etc. With a sharp look and confident gait, Dr. G, who is the PI of my lab, strikes a slightly intimidating yet dignified presence that made me nervous at first. But the longer I stayed in her lab, the more I admired her; she never fails to hold an indefatigable, quiet optimism while thinking about the next step almost immediately after (my) screw-ups. She is also always present in the lab to help in any way she can. PIs are the “bosses” of the lab, but contrary to popular belief, the top people don’t do stereotypical lab bench stuff. They’re often in their offices writing grants and reading mountains of cutting-edge research articles instead, and it’s fairly common to go days without seeing your PI (especially if they’re some hot shot in their field). But I’m proud to report that Dr. G actually makes the time to stop by my desk or lab bench to see if things are going smoothly, and a lot of the time she helps me with the actual lab bench work too. Usually, however, this work is done only by post-docs and junior lab members.

Everyone Else (Post-docs and other lackies like me)

Many labs have one or two post-docs, who are the most senior lab members after the PI, and they run the most important projects of the lab/execute any and all of the PI’s whims. There is one post-doc in Dr. G’s lab right now who specializes in fluorescent imaging with a super fancy microscope. Let’s call him N. A slightly short, middle-aged man with thin hair and thinner glasses, N clocks in as early as our PI (9AM sharp or earlier) and leaves after everyone else (6:30PM? 7PM? Midnight? No one knows). He earned his PhD in China and arrived at the lab as a permanent staff member. I would say that he is very close to the “holed up in a laboratory for nine hours, unsocial, awkward” researcher stereotype, and in that way he reminds me a lot of my father. I feel guilty speaking with N because I can’t understand his English sometimes—which embarrasses both of us. Unlike with my father, I can’t understand N in a language outside of English. However, our communication has been improving these past five weeks. Somehow we decipher each other’s words and maintain a cordial and friendly atmosphere, never missing to greet each other in the morning. Because research is so global now, clear communication, understanding, and amiability with people from different nationalities is more important than ever. 

In fact, one of the first actual conversations I had with the post-bac in Dr. G’s lab was about Cantonese tones. He has since become the person I’m closest to in lab; an absolute mess held together by brutal honesty and sheer stubbornness, he’s someone I couldn’t have survived this research experience without. Although most labs have graduate students helping the post-docs run the lab work, he (let’s say T) isn’t actually a grad student and is taking a gap year before applying to med school. After hearing that I was thinking about med school, he hasn’t stopped randomly quizzing me with “MCAT questions” (“What are the stages of meiosis? What are nodes? Yeah that’s right, that’s going to be on the MCAT!”). He’s also Chinese-American and I’ve had the pleasure of bothering him about Cantonese and Mandarin in between my biochem pop quizzes. Talking with T has led me to learn more about gaming (I’ve never felt more out of my depth), New York City, and medicine than I thought I would in an entire lifetime, let alone one summer. Research definitely recruits a lot of nerds but the thing is, nerds aren’t just nerds about science; nerds are actually just bundles of nerves hyper fixated on any random thing at any random time. Much like other jobs, research is a trillion times more fun with friends and conversations that go beyond just work. 

The last person in the lab is a new undergraduate student (she’ll be Y) from the university where the summer program is held: Rutgers. She only joined a couple of weeks ago so I don’t know her too well, but she’s the closest to me in age so I’m excited to get to know her. T says that he can tell I’m trying too hard to be friends with Y, but honestly I’m about as smooth as sandpaper so I’m hoping that people will be pleased rather than annoyed by my tryhard friendliness. Undergrads like us are often the lowest rung in the very loose hierarchy of the lab, so I’m pretty much down to befriend anyone who can relate to me in that regard. 

These are only just a few of the many research-oriented people I’ve met so far this summer. There are plenty of people, including the eleven other undergrads (mostly visiting students like me) in my summer program, who’ve all given me both positive and negative impressions about what a scientific career would be like. But overall, I really do enjoy being around people with similar interests and who light up when we start talking about science together. Wherever I end up, I hope I can be around people that talk with the kind of happiness that researchers talk with when someone is genuinely curious about glycine, glucose, or whatever they call it. So for now: research +1.

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