Make Friends as a Research Intern
I used to be a supporter of the ‘lone wolf’ stance. Who needs friends or enemies? I’m completely capable of doing things on my own. Wrong and wrong again. This is especially true if you’re the new research intern who is breaching the social circle of an already well established ‘clique’ within the lab. Be friendly, go out of your way to strike up a conversation with your new colleagues (without being too creepy). In my case, I didn’t do this because technically, I was from a different lab group and we just happened to have 2 groups using the same lab space. Apparently, the other team felt the same way. It’s a lonely road, which is okay, but you’re going to lose out on lunch buddies, insider tips, lab advice and invitations to join them for the next seminar.
Learn, Learn, Learn
If you have never been in an academic lab before, it’s going to be a steep learning curve. In my case I thought I had learned everything…in theory, and that was roughly 3 semesters ago. But then that cue happens, triggering self-induced panic over not remembering the minute details of how a lab procedure really works. The best advice is to always know what you don’t know, and then go find out the answer before you report in the next day. You may feel just an itsy bit of hate for people who don’t need to put in the extra hour or two after lab to research long forgotten topics, but it will come to pass, just soothe yourself with some coffee.
Ask, Ask, Ask
An excellent solution to your lab woes, and something you should never forget, is that you don’t have all the answers but someone else probably does. Always ask your mentor in the lab if you have any questions at all. If you can look it up yourself, make a note about it, but it’s always great to have someone (who is obliged to do it) to explain it to you. On a side note, be sure to remember the answer afterwards, and not drive your mentor crazy with questions he or she has already answered a million times.
On a very sad occasion, I left for lunch during the middle of an experiment that wasn’t very time sensitive and was left on ice. When I returned from lunch in a glorious food coma induced daze, I added the dye to my entire sample instead of just a small fraction of it, which is ridiculous when you consider I was doing a routine protein concentration assay. So of course, everything was just off the charts luminescent. My mentor took a look and flipped out. 3 months of her hard work had gone down the drain because I was busy digesting my noodles. If you’re prone to being rather blur after lunch, I suggest either completing your experiment first. Or just eating a small snack to tide you over instead.
Reflecting on your past is one of the best ways to go forward, if you do it well. Don’t dwell on your past mistakes. (Okay, the food coma incident did traumatize me, but moving on is the best way forward.) Learn from them, figure out what went wrong and how can you prevent that situation from happening again. Reflecting isn’t just for mistakes. If you had a good day in the lab, think about what you did that made it great. Through this you can plot a new course of action for the remainder of your internship. And even find ways to maximize your learning while you’re there. At the end of your internship review your progress and results. It really helps to know if you have used your time in the lab wisely. Ultimately, an internship experience can serve as a good learning experience for all budding scientists, whatever the scientific outcome.
To all the lab interns out there, may the odds be ever in your favor.