Welcome to the lab


For most of one’s education, the first day of school is a gentle introduction. Whether it’s kindergarten, high school, or even college, you needn’t fear any activity more stressful than going around the room and telling everyone an adjective that begins with the same letter as your name.

The first day of my Ph.D. program was different. After my morning class, I reported to my “rotation lab.” (At my school, first-year students rotated through four different labs for 2 months each, a timespan so brief that it seemed designed to guarantee the student couldn’t accomplish anything.) Stepping into my new lab—which, at that time, had occupied its space in the building for 40 years—felt like invading someone else’s workplace. This was probably because I was invading someone else’s workplace. Yet it was now my workplace, and whatever traditions and legacies filled the lab—from the curling photos and yellowing printouts on the bulletin board to the dusty, rarely accessed chemical bottles on the top shelf—would now be mine to disrupt.

My first task that day was to make competent cells, which means preparing and freezing tubes of E. coli for later genetic modification. I followed the lab’s recipe—actually pulled from a wooden recipe box and requiring, as an ingredient, “good water”—knowing that if I failed, I’d end up with “incompetent” cells that would refuse to take up DNA.

At the end of the process, I put a sample of my concoction into a spectrophotometer to see how concentrated the cells were. I found … no cells at all. They were simply gone. Clearly the missing cells were not the only incompetent ones in the lab that day.

Frustrated, I started a simpler task: purifying DNA. After I had finished the process and placed a droplet of the solution I had painstakingly prepared into the same spectrophotometer, I found … no DNA.

I had spent my first day in the lab, ostensibly my first day as an actual scientist, doing nothing but wasting supplies.

Desperate for a task I couldn’t screw up, I decided to disinfect some equipment in the department’s autoclave, a sterilizing chamber that uses heat and pressure to kill microbes. A sign-up sheet told me that the instrument was currently reserved for someone named Andrew, so I asked a senior grad student in my lab what to do.

“I’m Andy,” the grad student said.

Perhaps I was feeling overwhelmed by my mounting scientific inadequacy and the scariness of a new lab, or maybe I was just desperate to not screw something up. Whatever the reason, my brain failed to connect the two names, instead interpreting “I’m Andy” as the grad student choosing that moment to formally introduce himself. Even though he’d introduced himself that morning.

“Adam,” I said, smiling like a fool and extending my hand for him to shake.

That’s Day One in a lab, folks. Nothing works, you don’t know why, and you have to announce your inexperience regularly by asking the simplest questions.

For those of you about to start the fall semester in an unfamiliar laboratory, here are some warnings about the ignominies you’ll face at first. You’ll still have to face them, of course, but maybe it will at least help to know you’re not alone.

You won’t know the culture. Labs are intimate, tight-knit workplaces. Not only are you still learning names, but you have no idea what sort of history and politics suffuse everyday situations. When you ask Postdoc Pete how to use the thingamahoozits, you’re oblivious to the fact that Postdoc Pete and Grad Student Gretchen have feuded over the thingamahoozits for years, and by asking Pete instead of Gretchen, you’ve unknowingly chosen sides and offended five people. Oh, and you ruined your future results, too, because Postdoc Pete only thinks he knows how to use the thingamahoozits.

You won’t know how to do anything. You’ll need to make some simple reagent, like a saline solution. But where does your new lab keep the sodium chloride powder? Which bottle are you supposed to make it in? Where is the scale? Is there a little brush to clean off the scale, or do you, like, get a tissue? Where are you allowed to discard that tissue? Someone’s stuff is on the scale—can you move it? Where do you put the dirty tools when you’re done with them? Do you wash them yourself? Is there a preferred method for doing that? Where do these freaking monsters keep their Sharpies? It’s a seemingly interminable period of asking about every miniscule detail. You’ll feel like an annoying gadfly among the real workers—one of whom will eventually tell you that this lab purchases premade saline.

You won’t be fluent in the language. Maybe you’ve sat through a seminar and thought, “It can’t just be me—there’s no way everyone in the room can understand this.” You’re probably right, because researchers love to obfuscate and no one wants to admit ignorance. But at your first lab meeting in a new workplace, you very likely are the only one who can’t follow what’s going on. Everyone else has spoken the same jargon daily, and it’s unlikely that they’ll all slow down for your benefit. All you can do is nod, smile, and know that there will someday come a lab meeting that you can follow. Until that day, try not to fall asleep in the seminar.

You’ll be the only un-busy person in a lab full of busy people. You never want to be the sole slacker while the rest of your colleagues toil industriously. But at the beginning, you have no choice. First are the inevitable training requirements. You know you can work safely. But until you complete the institutionally mandated, state-certified, 40-hour, don’t-eat-chemicals certification course—and pass the online exam with at least a 70%—you may be relegated to watching others work while you read old journal articles you don’t really understand yet. Even once you’re officially approved to work, you’ll still probably find yourself facing downtime, which you’ll face in full view of people who left that concept behind years ago. “Um, is it bad if I just kind of screw around on my phone?” you’ll want to ask, but you know nothing good has ever come from asking that question.

All of this might make you wish you could jump forward a month or so, to a time when you’ll feel more integrated, more comfortable. Relax. You’ll get there soon enough. And remember, all your new co-workers—even your principal investigator—had a first day once, too. No matter how uneasy you feel, they’ll understand.

Which, I have now learned, is short for “understandrew.”

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