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?

Advertisements

Virtual long run- Two- #longrun #academia #runchat #oiselleteam

If we were on a long run today, I’d fill you in on the last few weeks of life. This probably won’t be too long of a long run (maybe 1.5hrs? 10miles? What do we feel like doing?) because I ran at a rate that was inversely proportional to the rate at which I consumed cheese and meat over the holidays. Like most everyone out there, December seemed like a whirlwind of events, too, and I didn’t get in all the awesome workouts and training and things I had planned. But really, it wasn’t too crazy. I ran a trail race in 8 inches of snow, I finished my first semester of teaching college sophomores, I applied for a few jobs, I traveled to Michigan for Christmas. I could probably write the “12 days of fall semester ending” song: There was 1 white elephant gift exchange, two Secret Santas, three holiday parties, four students that liked me as an instructor (if I am being optimistic), five reference letters requested, six CV updates, seven lunches and luncheons, eight dinners, nine cookies, make that ten cookies… ok fine, 12 cookies. All long runs should have some singing, right? Anyway, I digress.

If we were on a long run today, I’d tell you how relieved I am to have finished my first semester as a lecturer in engineering. Teaching was tough; it required a lot more time than I thought it would (and I went in expecting to put in more time than most college profs given that I’d never taught an entire class before), it required a lot more effort, and a lot more emotional restraint. It was both humbling and rewarding, and I am excited to teach again knowing what I know now. I didn’t expect or anticipate all the questions I was asked throughout the semester, but as we chugged along, I found my stride. It was a steep learning curve, but I definitely know what approaches to take, and what not to take, in the future when I teach again. That is, if anyone hires me… (more on that later). Have you ever taught a class? A lecture? Have you had any teachers or professors that stood out as ones you liked or didn’t like? What about them made them a good or a bad instructor?

If we were on a long run today, I’d tell you that I have officially started the tenure track (TT) faculty search. In fact, this would probably take up the whole run, so maybe I will save the majority of it for a different post. I will say, however, that this is yet another thing about academia that is not as easy as one might expect (and requires a lot more time than I thought it would). Get a fellowship, they said. It will make you a “hotter” candidate, they said. What I have gathered, in my immature and rather short experience of TT-applying thus far, is that I’m not entirely convinced that the search committees always care that much about that kind of stuff. Cool, you have funding. So does everyone else applying for TT jobs right now (or so it seems).  Nonetheless, I’m on pins and needles waiting… waiting… waiting. Because even if you submit an application on Tuesday, you want (you really, really want) some sort of “cool, thanks for applying” point of contact from a real person, not an automated email, with some sort of “you’re just what we’re looking for!” or, at least, “nah, you’re not that cool” feedback. Because, even though you really want to be that cool, you also don’t like waiting. As I’ve been told, the first round of applications for TT positions tends to be a crapshoot, (or rather in academia) “a learning experience,” and yet another way to develop thicker skin. Also, it’s a way of finding out that the search committees just aren’t that into you, as one might say. And lastly, I will tell you that the TT application process in and of itself is a lot like trying to date someone you’ve had a crush on for a while; the nervous butterflies after you put yourself out there, the checking your phone/email all the time to see if you missed a message or call, the constant sinking “oh shit” feeling that you messed something up (grammatically, of course). Oy. I haven’t dated in a while. Remember when we used to chat about dating on our long runs?

If we were on a long run today, I’d laugh at the analogies we make now that we are “older,” and obviously more mature. Seriously, there was a time when we ran for hours and talked about our crazy sorority roommate and all the f^&#ing glitter in our upstairs bathroom, or our crazy office mate who didn’t use headphones and drove us nuts, or what freshman we could find to give us a free dorm meal. What crazy stories from college (or earlier years) do you remember that got you through long runs?

If we were on a long run today, I’d tell you about the awesome race I did a few weekends ago called the Pere Marquette Endurance Trail Run. It’s a cult race, usually selling out in the first few days that registration is open (this year it sold out in 6 hrs). Fortunately, the race director threw me on the wait list and I got in after bribing him with threats of volunteering and trail cleanup. Also, Pere Marquette is (apparently) a fairly famous area of Illinois; according to my Coffee Guy (@stringbeanPete), it’s the #2 place in the late 1960s for people to go on their honeymoon. There’s loads of bald eagles flying around, and its about an hour away from St Louis City proper. I almost ditched the race because the area got about 8 inches of snow between midnight and 6am, and the roads were in horrible condition. Fortunately, Emily agreed to drive, so we picked up Irwin and we skidded our way to the PMQT visitors center to run a 7.5mile race, in snow. It was fantastic. Lots of fun, actually kind of fast because the trail was basically paved (albeit with snow). There were some slow sections (e.g., getting behind the train of runners from waves that started ahead of me) and super fast sections (e.g., running in the powder and just flying down the hills), and I wound up in second place for women behind Emily herself. We had the speedy car, apparently. Has there ever been a race that you almost didn’t show up to the start line for that was an absolute freakin’ blast to race?

The drive up.

I like running down hills, too. Photo by James Hooton

I like running down hills, too. Photo by James Hooton

So much pretty snow. Photo by Joann Fricke

So much pretty snow. Photo by Joann Fricke

SuperKate. Photo by Jim Hooton

SuperKate. Photo by Jim Hooton

The line of people.

The line of people. Photo by Joann Fricke

If we were on a long run today, I’d make a plan to have a long run again on Saturday or Sunday, because it’s 2014 now and it’s time to get back at it. Let’s think about what races we want to do this year, and chat about it in a few days, yeah?