Over the summer, our lab has been invaded by an exotic species with a dynamic life cycle and an all-too-brief half-life.
No, I’m not talking about some new strain of uropathogenic E. coli or other variety of bad-assed bug.
I’m talking about our crop of summer students.
Grown-up and world-weary researchers often have mixed feelings when the summer students descend — boisterous high-school pupils or undergraduates eager to get some lab work experience to facilitate their future debut in higher education. It might initially seem like a great idea to get in an extra pair of hands to work on your project. The problem is, though, that they arrive in a pretty clueless state, probably with little practical experience and only a sketchy theoretical grounding in the work they are meant to be doing. They certainly don’t know where everything is or how the equipment works, and someone has to look after them very closely. Often, this can consume your entire day, especially in the first week or so. Take your eyes off them for five minutes and you might return to a slump-shouldered tragic figure, starting at a broken slide or a reaction spilled all over the bench. And there is nothing more tragic than a disappointed student, crushed by their first (of many) experiences with lab failure.
Just as you are starting to wish you’d never agreed to entertain a student, they suddenly start being useful. They master the technique and don’t have to interrupt you every five minutes to ask you where the antibody is, or whether they have the pipette dialled correctly or whether (a particularly vexing problem for the newbie) they’ve calculated their dilution properly. They can focus on their specimen under the microscope without running for assistance. They just get on with things, and they can do things that you just couldn’t get yourself organized enough to do yourself. When it comes software-driven apparatus, they can often find short-cuts that you didn’t even know existed — making you feel suddenly ancient, like a grandmother being taught to send a text message by an eight-year-old.
But it’s their enthusiasm that really makes it all worthwhile, for me. When the little project you thought up in a sleep-deprived daze on a Monday morning suddenly starts to bear interesting fruit, they light up like a fluorescent bulb. Even negative data doesn’t phase them. (“This will make a great section in my report about how to do things better next time!” one of mine said excitedly this morning, in the face of page after page of Excel graphs showing no significant difference between any of the experimental conditions.) They fill the coffee room with happy laughter, and they leave sweet, poignant little traces all over the lab:
Tomorrow is their last day, and it will seem a little too quiet without them.