Lessons from My Research Experiences (Part 1)

Laboratory & Research Advice

Lessons from My Research Experiences (Part 1)

My experience with conducting research has certainly been one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve undertaken in my time as a college student. I’m writing this series of blogs basically to take you through my personal experience so that, hopefully, you can learn a few things from my story that will help you find success in the lab.

When I first entered college, I knew immediately that I wanted to get involved with research. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to participate in any research while I was in high school so I had no prior experience to build on. To make matters worse, it seemed like everyone I talked to had done some sort of research before. Despite my lack of research, however, I succeeded in finding a research position for the summer by the end of my freshman year.

This was my first full time research position ever and I was not sure what to expect when I first began working. One major mistake I made was thinking that I had to know how to perform every procedure perfectly right away. My mentor in that lab never used any protocols when he was teaching my peers and I how to perform different procedures. As a result, I was under the impression that I was expected to know every step of every procedure by memory. I spent the first part of that summer trying to perform tasks from memory and I usually ended up messing up some part of the experiment.

Lesson 1

Ask for a written protocol for each procedure you are taught and take notes so that you can refer back to them if you need to. Furthermore, major lesson number two: no one is perfect when they first start out in a lab. Take the time to learn things correctly the first time around so that you don’t repeatedly make mistakes later on. Don’t beat yourself up if you think that you’re learning too slowly. Everyone has to start somewhere and it’s better to build a solid foundation than to rush through learning basic lab techniques.

Lesson 2

The other major challenge that I encountered that summer involved how I interacted with my fellow student researchers. I worked with two other students on different projects throughout the summer and, while doing so, I realized that I needed to improve my ability to coordinate the tasks that needed to be completed. Often, we would be tasked with carrying out a procedure that was quite lengthy, so each of us would complete one part and pass off the task to the next person to make the entire experiment more efficient. However, we quickly realized that we were not communicating with each other well enough, which led to quite a few failed procedures.

Lesson 3

Be vocal, be organized, and ask questions when you’re working with others on a research project. In my case, I had to learn to ask my peers questions about how they performed certain parts of the experiment. For example, if an experiment involved loading samples into an analysis machine, it would be helpful for me to verify with my peers the order that they loaded the samples in. That way, I don’t misinterpret the results or, if my job was to load additional reagents into the machine before running the analysis, I would not load the wrong reagents in the wrong order.

Looking back on that summer, I can definitely say that I learned a lot. Though the position was stressful at times, I honestly feel like I grew significantly as a researcher. By the end of that summer, I had learned to work better with my peers and I had gained a lot of experience doing basic lab techniques. The next part of my research journey would begin again as soon as the new school year started, but that’s a story for the next blog.