In my shoes: Managing the summer student influx in the laboratory #academia

As a post-doc, I don’t really have any of the administrative responsibilities that my mentors and colleagues that are PIs have. In general, my responsibilities include: 1) showing up for work; 2) completing project(s) sponsored by my PI’s grants (who, at least originally, was paying my stipend); and 3) publish, publish, publish. Occasionally, a post-doc is privileged with having their own funding and, potentially, more flexibility on what projects to pursue, but the end game is still: Get work done + Get it peer reviewed and published = successful.

This equation doesn’t always include the denominator of advising or mentoring other trainees. But, I’d be lying if I said that we can do it all by ourselves- or that we should even try. We need to ask ourselves: Why are we here? What is it we want from this profession? At it’s most basic level, our job as academics is to educate, whether that means educating students in the classroom, educating our peers on our research findings, or educating the public in outreach, policy, and open discourse. We are responsible for making improvements, especially intellectually. One of the ways post-docs can educate others is in the lab, with undergraduates or graduate students, with adequate training, time, research, and reinforcement of the scientific method. Think of it as a sort of “good for the realm” type approach (if you catch my Game of Thronesian reference there). What you put in, you hope to get out, and you want the next generation to be as good or better than you.

Plus, delegating responsibilities, and asking for help, can help kick-start new projects or just help knock down the mountains of work you have to do (so, it’s not a totally selfless thing after all). Assuming the help is reliable, you can certainly make great headway in your own independent approach to research- apart from your advisor- which makes getting a job after postdoctopia slightly more likely. Hello, senior author-dom!

So, the purpose of this post -which will be the first of many this summer- is to help guide young mentors (like myself) when the influx of eager and, likely, somewhat under-experienced help that has entered blazingly into the laboratory for the next few months.

Here’s a few tips that can help establish a training infrastructure for the albeit short and intense summer research session currently underway:

1. Set up regular training workshops.

When there’s one or two mentees fluttering about the laboratory, it’s usually feasible to provide one-on-one training/shadowing. That being said, there are a lot of things that newbie mentees don’t inherently know about work in the lab. And, if you have three or four trainees, you might want to gouge your eyes out after repeating that it is not ok to wear sandals in the wet lab for the seventh or eighth time. So, this summer, I started a bi-weekly training course for undergraduates and new graduate students to guide them, as a group, into what more senior academes might consider basic research know-hows. The training sessions include:

a) How to be a good lab-mate — in other words, how to keep a good notebook so that someone else can read what you spent your summer doing and repeat it, if necessary (and, it will probably be necessary). This session also includes basic lab safety stuff, like the aforementioned sandals rule and food/drink in lab, plus where you can get stuff if you need it (i.e., Where can I buy DMEM? Where can I park my bike?)

b) The literature review and managing citations — because writing for research is an entirely different animal than writing for rhetoric. This session includes a basic how-to-read-a-peer-reviewed-article, how to find said paper (i.e., picking the right key words for your research), and gives advice on how to manage references. Specifically, what are reference managers (like Mendeley and Endnote) and how can they make your life easier? This is also a brief intro to reading peer reviewed papers without stabbing your eyes out. Start with the title, abstract, and figures. If it warrants your attention, delve deeper. Know what criteria to set for triage of papers.

c) Academic writing and publishing — There comes a time when all the work you are doing is coming to an end, and you need to share what you’ve done with the general public. Or, at least, your mentor. Academic writing is a lot different than writing for, say, English composition. Write brief, concise, and clear. Make outlines first, and expand. Each word you use must have value; there’s not any room for “fluff” or filler.

d) Presenting your research to your peers — One of the most challenging things I still deal with as an academic is presenting in front of my peers. There’s just something so nerve-wrecking about it. You’d think that I train for running so that I don’t have a heart attack while presenting, because my heart-rate gets up to 170bpm before I stand behind the podium. I am not joking. Now, I’m not saying this to make all my mentees nervous; far from it. I think I would have been better served had I had more opportunities to present in front of people, had I been put on the stage, so to speak, repeatedly and often. This training workshop is probably the most beneficial of all the sessions, because whether or not your mentee(s) go on into academia, being able to present and discuss with others your aims and accomplishments is an incredibly important, and often under-trained, skill. In this session, students learn a few tips, but are also responsible for sharing, in five minutes or less, their summer research to an audience of their peers.

2. Make task lists and stay up-to-date with your mentee’s accomplishments.

It’s hard to make time, especially as a trainee yourself, for someone else’s training. But it’s crucial and it’s what we are here to do. By assigning my mentees’ to completing weekly “to-do” lists, as well as “accomplishments” lists, I am able to get feedback from them as well as give feedback to where they should be spending more or less of their time.

3. Be a reliable mentor.

Your mentee isn’t there to provide you with free labor. In return for good data, you need to provide good mentorship. That means being a reliable mentor.  Whether it’s simply showing up on time or being thorough in training your mentee a new technique, it is imperative that they are getting the most they can from your relationship. You are an educator, after all. Be accessible by email, by phone, by Google-Hangout. Don’t let them get lost in a pile of papers. Check in regularly with your mentees to make sure they’re questions are answered, and encourage them to ask questions. As a great mentor and friend of mine said at happy hour on Friday: “When you’re younger, the smart kids don’t ask questions. As you get older, the smart kids are the ones always asking questions.” 

Any other tips or tricks for dealing with facilitating productivity of summer students in the lab?

Toeing the line again…

I’m doing it. I’m pulling the trigger.

It’s time for another race. I feel recovered from the FullRev at Cedar Point, and I want back in the game. Dare I say, that I had such great success on that day, I don’t want to fall off my (almost) winning streak.

So I’m getting back into the race mentality. I’ve got to plan out my nutrition, get a good night’s sleep, dial it in.

It’s not the typical race, though.  No, there will be no ribbon at the finish line. Putting in the time in training now will hopefully mean an easier, less effort day come race time. There are no bike pumps or wetsuits or aero helmets or disc wheels allowed here. If I flat, I’m on my own. My transitions need to be quick and well executed, that’s just free time. I’m not worried about what shoes to wear on the long run; I’m more concerned with how I’ll get to the home stretch. It’s no longer about the gear, it’s about what’s in my head.  I won’t be greeted by enthusiastic aid station volunteers at the 11th hour, when the pain cave  is closing in around me. But I know there’s going to be that light at the end of the tunnel…

One foot in front of the other, or in this case- one word after the next. The race is on, and my dissertation won’t write itself. I’m looking forward to this taper in particular…

Special shout-out to these fab folks for helping me get through this challenge: Baberaham (for cooking me real food among other incredibly helpful things), Mom’n’Dad (obviously), Peace Coffee (how else can I function?), Saucony and Lucy Activewear (because wearing athletic clothes to work is AOK in my book when it looks this good), Sharpie and my Trakkers gang (for not calling me crazy[to my face]), and the oh-so-convenient Halloween candy from ShopKo (nuff said).

A change of pace

In high school, I was a runner, and I was seriously committed to becoming a better athlete with each day of training. I ran what my coach told me to run, I rarely complained, I dug deep and breathed heavy and pushed myself as hard as I could, taking comfort in knowing that my efforts would pay off. My ultimate goal was to break the 800m record (again; I broke it my freshman year, but it was snatched up pretty quickly by my French friend, Vanessa). My dad never missed a race, and I would hear the trademark whistle of my coach when I was gaining on my competitors, which translated into “Go- go- go!”  Although I never grabbed the 800m record again, I did compete at the state level practically every season (sans the Frenchie-exchange season, of which I was injured. I watched her crush my record at the state meet, and it was absolutely amazing).

Then I went off to college. I chose Michigan Tech, aside from the location and program of study, because I could continue to run competitively. I joined the cross-country team and life continued as normal. Well, maybe not normal, but the transition wasn’t too abrupt. I still had a team, albeit new (and majorly fast) girls. I still had practice. I still had a routine. I still got nervous before races, listened to certain songs before putting my spikes on, and sat with my parents, who would travel great lengths to watch me race. Although the practices were much different in college, I got to experience a new aspect of training that made me faster with every year. I had hills to run up, snow to run through, and trails to get lost on. I hammered down my personal best in the 5K and then I’d peak for the season on Lahti repeats. I could hear my old coach’s whistle in my ears. In college, I met some amazingly strong and incredibly smart women, women that wouldn’t just settle for mediocrity. The carrot would dangle and they’d chase after it. We’d all chase after it. The finish line could keep taking less and less time to get to, but our race for being our best would never end.

And then I went to New Zealand for study abroad. And I got tendonitis from hiking in the South Island and then I drank a lot of beer. When it was time to get back to the U.S. and train for my last season, I was out of shape and ten pounds heavier than when I left. I worked my butt off and ran the longest run of my life at the time (18 miles) and I was convinced by our team captain to join the Nordic team. I continued to race through the winter, and I got faster and stronger every day. I admit that I cried a lot.  I cried going up the Balsam hill on skate skis. I cried going down Cemetary on skate skis. I even cried while riding in the van with five half-naked freshman boys (but that was from laughing so hard). My last track season seemed to come and go like the spring in the UP (which is really fast, by the way), and then I was done. It was quite anticlimatic.

Then I was in Montana. I signed up for some local 10Ks but nothing serious. I felt burnt out, and I even stopped running for about 9 months. I just didn’t feel like going. I started lifting weights, thinking that I’d find some enjoyment out of pushing myself harder in my brute physical strength, but I got bored. And eventually, I found my way back to running. I signed up for the Bridger Ridge Run and tried to prepare as best I could. I raced for nearly four of the five hours with a heart rate about 170, and I puked. After that, I signed up for my first marathon and trained my butt off. Discipline drove me to run on the treadmill every day, sometimes twice, during that harsh, frigid Montana winter. I’d run tempos and hills with my iPod shuffle in hand and America’s Next Top Model on the TV. I’d watch the weight lifters doing what I admittedly didn’t want to do. And I ran once for three hours, just plugging away with the belt moving beneath my feet.

Then I was in California. I was toeing the line for my first ever marathon, surrounded by half naked, anxious and excited runners (that oddly resembled in figure that of the freshman boys). The sun was rising and I was off. I listened to my body and I felt my lungs breathe in the most fresh and clean air I could imagine. I ran with two women for a few miles who were shooting for a 3:35. I left them. I ran for a guy using the marathon as a “training” run (something I thought of as absolutely absurd at the time… go figure). After six miles or so, I left him. I ran past vineyard after vineyard, aid station after aid station, and cheering crowd after cheering crowd. I ran by myself for the last 10K. I dug deep and felt my feet hit their rhythm on the pavement. I wove through the subdivision and felt my legs burn. Felt my arms burn. Felt everything just burn. And then I saw the spectators, the finish line, the clock, and I heard my coach’s whistle in my head. I felt everything disappear.

Then I was back in Michigan’s UP, running and training and racing, and I’ve not stopped since. It’s been just over 3 years since I ran my first marathon, and two weeks ago I finished my sixth. Racing marathons has exposed me to a whole new world of athleticism- and it helps nip my travel bug as well. Triathlon is not much different. There’s so much dedication and passion involved in endurance sports, and so much potential that I keep striving to reach. The further I push myself, the deep I reach into the giant vat of opportunities in sports like these. I see this pursuit for personal bests every day in my training partners and teammates. We don’t just settle, we keep advancing. We keep training. We keep racing.

Then I was in Madison, Wisconsin… racing my first Ironman. Then I was in Ohio, beating my personal best in the marathon 5wks later. It will go on and on.

Next weekend, I’m tapping into my retired fast-twitch muscles for my first Olympic distance triathlon. This will be the first triathlon of the season, and the first I’ve ever done shorter than than the half-iron distance. I’m nervous and excited. I’ve got my iPod charged and ready to rock with some of the classic pre-race pump me up songs. I’ll have my dad cheering from the crowds, and I’ll have my teammates beside me. I’m ready to go.