- “If I email 100 profs, one of them HAS to reply.”
- “I wrote a huge, grammatically correct email and the prof responded with k…?”
- “I hope the prof doesn’t notice me messing up…”
- “Wait, I haven’t seen the prof in about 2 weeks. Hello? Is there anyone out there?”
- “How much longer until I can go to an international conference?”
- “Wait, which of these chemicals are toxic again?”
- “I’m SO excited to come to lab at 7:30 am during winter!”
- “Ok, why did I choose to major in this again?”
- “OMG, did they just mistake me for the PhD student?”
- “The P-Value is under 0.05 and the feels are over 9000!!!”
Joining a lab to get research experience is something that many undergraduate students do to see if research is right for them. For those of you who have been in one, I’m sure you can already relate. For those who haven’t had a chance...I think you can especially relate to #1. It’s easy to feel down on yourself and on research in general if you have particularly high expectations, especially during your first lab experience. And we’re here to tell you that it’s all totally okay: from questioning your own capabilities and reasons for being here to questioning whether you’ll ever have enough data to write that final report, we’ve all been there, done that. Every lab experience is different for everyone, even for the two of us:
|Mossin with Osmond
I’m currently in my third year, trying to find another lab that better fits my interests. But my first lab experience ever was not the most conventional one. My prof had a project that allowed first years to use his laboratory to do whatever they wanted, so long as it was novel, related to chemistry, and never done before. He said he wanted to see what first years were capable of, and after many interviews and supplementary applications, I got a chance to work with a team of highly motivated students.
It was very difficult to think of something novel to do in chemistry with only high school chemistry knowledge. Our group spent many hours talking to the prof and grad students, and reading hundreds of various chemistry research papers. We initially wanted to synthesize a new form of paper. But after even further literature searches, we realized there was so much money and work being poured into the paper industry. There was even something called rock paper. And glass paper. Everything had been done before. So we met with our prof again, and slowly and slowly, our direction began to switch. We focused on cellulose and looked into other cool things we could do with nanocrystalline cellulose crystals (an abundant resource without much use at the moment), and eventually had the idea of trying to synthesize pH- sensitive nanocrystalline cellulose hydrogels. We had come across a paper that had made pH-sensitive hydrogels, and another paper that made cellulose hydrogels, but the two were never done together, so we decided to try something related to that.
But this was only the start of our troubles. Our methodology had many issues and problems occurring in the lab. Sometimes, our organic chemistry reaction wouldn’t work right, and we had to revisit what went wrong to fix it for the next lab session. Other times our yield was ridiculously low, or our characterization didn’t show the expected product. In the end, we were unable to successfully synthesize our product by the time frame. We had a huge debrief with our prof and he told us that this is what research is like in the real world. Lots of errors. But it’s important to look back and see what you’ve learned. And when I looked back, I saw the nervous first year student who didn’t know any relevant science, to now, being able to learn basic organic chemistry and other chemistry analysis techniques. I learned that we all have potential and just need the opportunity to realize it.
|Sci with Di
I’m going into my second year now, and actually starting my first real research project in a computational neuroscience lab. Now, I knew a bit better than to expect to jump right into modelling neuroplasticity in the cerebral cortex or something--especially since my coding experience can be summed up with a null string, but it is currently week #1 and according to the PI, I’m looking at 6 weeks of readings in the dropbox file of literature he shared with me.
As it stands right now, on September 20 2015, I’ve looked through the abstracts of the papers he sent me and I can understand about 50% of the words separately and approximately 0% when put together.
I’m not sure how much faith I have in my being able to actually get to the data analysis part of my project this year...But I mean, in line with #5, I think that I’d better get on that real quick.
One thing that I’ve taken so far is that even though your PI might seem intimidatingly brilliant, their role is to mentor you. You don’t have to have a thorough understanding of the state of research in their field: the job of a professor goes beyond that of a scientist into that of a mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, google, and use all of the resources at your disposal (seriously, at the risk of sounding like a librarian, you’ll never be able to access research papers as easily as through your university databases) to figure out what’s going on. And it’s fully expected that you’ll struggle with it and start by having to look up every other word in the paper you’re reading--your professor has likely mentored other students at a similar experience level and knows what to expect, even if you don’t. Try to keep your expectations realistic: in research, even if you do put in all the effort, sometimes, things take longer than you project, the data comes out completely different than what you expected and you have to troubleshoot in ways you didn’t think were possible. Make it work as a learning experience.
And I mean, one of the perks of being involved in computer science research is that I can do it from the comfort of my bed at 2 am on Saturdays. Just in case you were reading this unsure about which department to talk to for fun research projects. Shameless plug for the computer science department. :)
Your experience likely won’t reflect ours too much-- you can see that every experience is different. Regardless of what type of lab and which department you choose, you’re likely to experience the same initial frustrations--just keep in mind that you’re doing work that no one has done before, changing the face of science as we know it and that kind of goal doesn’t get achieved overnight. Best of luck! :)
aDiOs from Diana & Osmond
November 9th, 2015