By Paul Isaac, Peer Research Ambassador
If you’ve been to the OUR website and are reading this blog post right now, you’ll probably realize that we have a LOT of resources aimed at helping students get into labs and explaining how to reach out to faculty, but what actually happens once you actually get into a lab? In truth, your first week of research will likely be stressful, disorienting, and will heavily influence your enjoyment and connection to the research you’re pursuing.
To this end, I’d like to offer some tips to help you make the most of that critical first week. That being said, as a biological researcher most of these tips best apply to biology and STEM labs, but many of them should be universal to any field of research.
1. Be proactive during orientation
Your first week of going into a lab will likely start with an orientation. Every lab handles their orientation differently, but they generally cover the same things. For the most part you can expect a tour of the lab and equipment, a quick introduction to the graduate students, post docs, or other undergraduate students that are in the lab, a discussion of lab’s goals, and the project and graduate student that your PI has assigned you to. While on paper this orientation process makes sense, its pacing often results in information overload that can leave you feeling clueless, or simply nodding along to what’s being said. Do not let yourself fall into that trap!
Be actively involved during this orientation process. I highly recommend bringing a small notebook that you can carry around and make notes in during your orientation. If you have a question that you don’t feel comfortable asking at the moment, make sure to write it down so you can get it answered later. Moreover, having notes to look back on can be invaluable when you forget half of what you heard after you leave the lab.
Additionally, try your best to ask questions throughout your orientation rather than just saving everything for the end. If you see a piece of equipment that interests you, ask about what it’s used for. If you notice that the fridges are named after Winnie the Pooh characters, like they are in my lab, don’t be afraid to ask about that. These questions simultaneously serve as a way for you to control the pace of your orientation, build rapport with the lab member orienting you, and show that you’re interested and attentive to what’s being said.
2. Don’t be afraid of asking “bad” questions
While on the topic of questions, I want to emphasize that when you’re just starting research there’s no such thing as a “bad” or “dumb” question. PIs do not expect you to be an expert in the field before coming into the lab, but they do expect you to know what you’re doing eventually. Your first week is the best time to ask questions like “what does DNA stand for” if they’ll help you better understand what you’re doing. It’ll look much worse when you ask the same question a month or two in.
3. Be honest about your early mistakes or slip-ups
If you’re entering a biology-focused lab you’ll likely have to go through many of UConn EHS’ safety presentations. These presentations were made in response to mistakes made in the past and are addressed to prevent or at least mitigate mistakes made in the present and future. Every graduate student I’ve talked to has admitted to making at least one pretty bad mistake that impacted their research at some point in their career. However, it’s the mistakes that seem small enough to hide or cover up that often do the most harm.
While starting to work with cell culture in a biosafety hood, I remember accidentally popping a bubble of media at the tip of my pipet over the samples I was working with. Instead of immediately wiping everything down in the area to cover my bases, I foolishly decided to continue working and placed my samples back into the incubator. Unfortunately that small drop of media, in the optimal growing conditions of the incubator, resulted in a huge fungal contamination problem that destroyed all my samples and affected samples that other graduate students had placed in the same incubator.
Needless to say, I was horrified and immediately humbled by the experience, but I also learned a lot more on improving my sterile technique from it. At the end of the day, research is supposed to be a learning experience for students and mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning process. Getting ahead of the situation, doing the right thing, or informing someone when it seems like something isn’t quite right is always better than making a snap decision or choosing to sweep it under the rug.
4. Talk to the graduate students!
Having been in a lab for 3 years now, I can say without a doubt that on a day-to-day basis graduate students will be your lifeline in the lab. For the most part graduate students better understand and remember what it’s like being an undergrad and have more free time than your PI to help you on a day-to-day basis. While you’ll likely be paired with one graduate student as you enter the lab, make sure to talk to basically everyone and anyone you can find in the lab. Every graduate student has a different skill set and set of experiences that you can potentially learn from and many of them will be more than willing to pass on that knowledge. While I still go to my PI for my big idea issues or obstacles that I absolutely can’t figure out, 9 times out of 10 I can get my questions answered by a graduate student or lab tech.
While not entirely universal, I hope that this list of tips helps anyone who’s anxious or stressed about their first week of research. While getting situated in a lab often involves being thrown a lot of new information at once, these tips should help make that experience more manageable.
Paul is a senior majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and Diagnostic Genetic Sciences, and minoring in Bioinformatics. Click here to learn more about Paul.