5 Lessons Learned from my First Taste of Research

(Image credit http://www.inveralmondchs.org)

 

My summer research ended today. It was supposed to end last week. However, my mentor requested that I stay an extra week in order to work with my co-worker, whose last week was this week.

Wow. I’m not sure how to feel. Relieved that I can sleep in? I’m not sure I’ll be able to rest, with this nagging feeling of incomplete work. Don’t get me wrong, it was an incredibly productive 9 weeks. My mentor, co-worker and I discovered a lot during these few months.

Here are some things that I have learned from this research:

 

1. IT NEVER ENDS.

Science is never complete, it seems. Once you find something, you have to test it. You have to make sure that it wasn’t a fluke, some crazy hopeful accident. When you’re done testing it, you have to figure out how it applies to other things. Once you find how it applies, you have to test if that application works. It’s a never ending cycle of discovery and innovation. Despite the repetitive labor, the results of experimentation always seem to hold new surprises. It makes you thirst for more. It’s a dopamine that your body never grows accustomed to, so you will do it over and over.

More below…

 

2. ORGANIZATION IS VITAL FOR PRODUCTIVITY

Took an image of that sample? Genotyped it? These don’t mean a thing if you lost track of what product went with what well. Minor mindless acts such as scrawling down the date of when you stained your samples on a dirty napkin could be the hidden Deux Ex Machina that saves you a weeks worth of tears and time. Organization is also important not only for yourself, but for others. Even if YOU understand what images go with what sample, your peers will certainly not follow your mental mapping.

 

3. ANY SKILLS YOU HAVE COME IN HANDY

A few summers ago, I was a bored and adolescent teenage girl. Since I frequented Tumblr, I learned how to make gifs and memes with GIMP and other image editors. Who would have known that I was going to use ImageJ to take measurements for my research? My mentor provided a rudimentary means of taking my measurements. However, having image editing experience I was able to use a more accurate, efficient method of measuring. I would probably have some sort of carpal tunnel if I did not have previous experience with image editors. Any skill you have can be put to use. My mentor’s sewing abilities enabled him to create makeshift probes out of fishing wire and pipette tips! I enjoy this sort of creative flexibility. I was able to fix the door to the microscope room, where my mentor and co-workers were unable to… Biggest accomplishment of all this summer.

 

4. IT’S OKAY TO MAKE MISTAKES

Dropped the PCR product? Clean tips fell on contaminated area? Not good, but it’s not the end of the world. Mistakes happen all of the time, which is why science is an ongoing process! If these accidents didn’t happen, there would be no need to question things and experiment! The first test for anything would be completed and accepted. Mistakes are part of the lab. This doesn’t mean that you should be careless, however. This means that it’s fine for things to not go the way you want it to. Who knows, maybe the mistakes you keep having aren’t quite accidental.

 

5. NETWORKING IS NECESSARY

Opportunities come from everywhere, and it’s easiest to find them in people you know. Perhaps this was the most obvious point, but it wasn’t clear to me until later. Every kind of networking is good: a healthy connection with your mentor, friendships with co-workers, even that split second smile with a stranger you walk by. Somehow, it accumulates and you’re woven into this web of social connections. I waved goodbye to one of the men who worked at the docks. I never learned his name, but I don’t think that this will be the last time I see him.

 

I suppose this post became about life lessons instead of research. I figured this would be more tasty than “How to Follow a Protocol 101.” I guess you could say that research IS life. Would I do it again? Oh yes. I hope that my university will allow me to do research there. My move-in day is in 13 days. I haven’t packed yet. Maybe I should do that now, since I am done with research… For now.

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