As a force of nature, you can’t get much more powerful than a first-year rotating graduate student: one part youthful stamina and nine parts unrelenting enthusiasm. This year in our institute I took part in a new experiment for dealing with the annual crop of incoming PhD candidates. Previously, before embarking on their first placement, they would have been subjected to a month of lectures and a series of practical demonstrations. These demos used to take place in the unused half of our laboratory, supervised by one of the more dynamic lab heads: brand-new boxes of gleaming Gilsons and tips and a series of out-of-the-box experiments designed to flex virgin thumb muscles and get feet wet. Although it was always heart-warming to see the troupe of white-coated fledglings following their instructor around the lab, I often wondered how useful – or interesting – these exercises actually were.
This year, though, someone came up with the idea of putting the students into teams of two, assigning them a gene and asking them to find out as much as possible about it, both through literature searches and direct experimentation, in a three-week period. Their first task would be working out who in the building would be most appropriate to give them a hand, based on the identity of the gene, and then identifying which people would be the best expert advisors for any given task. Of course the bulk of supervision would fall on the person whose pet gene had been assigned to the pair, but the idea was to spread the load of supervision across the whole building while giving the students the skills they needed, including the fine art of schmoozing and scrounging – which in some ways might be just as important as ace pipetting for long-term success.
One of the genes from my screen was selected as student bait (with my blessing, of course), and soon a twin whirlwind had blasted into our lab. The great thing about having students around, even for a short time, is that it forces you to dust off that important task that’s been languishing because you simply haven’t had time to deal with it. You might think you’re busy, but when two pairs of puppy-dog eyes are staring at you imploringly, you really have no choice but to make time to help. Every time you agree to supervise someone, you run the risk of putting in a lot of effort for very little tangible output for your own project, so you always hope that it will be worth your while.
Dear reader, the students exceeded my wildest dreams. In only a fortnight, they’d made two DNA constructs, performed a key rescue experiment in cells and made a preliminary foray into inspecting the effects of gene knockdown on RNA splicing. A few nights they even worked til midnight, and I had to physically restrain one of them from doing more experiments the evening before their big report was due. They were so autonomous near the end that I often had to chase them to find out what results they’d actually achieved. And they weren’t half coy about their accumulating data: one afternoon I came back to my desk to find this tantalizing little heart-breaker:
The postdoc is always the last to know.
‘when two pairs of puppy-dog eyes are staring at you imploringly’
At the Maison des Giraffes we can only ever manage one pair of puppy-dog eyes…
If you want more than one pair you have to resort to teh kittehs
There were a few times when I was desperately late for crucial appointments (e.g. giving a talk in front of 100 people across campus) and they’d follow me into the corridor, trying to keep me back for one last question. Reminded me of peeping baby birds more than puppies at that point.
That’s a really clever idea. When I was a Masters student, I was also given a similar exercise. But, crucially I think, I was alone and not in a pair. Back then, I was much more introverted, was a chemist in an unfamiliar biochemistry lab, and really struggled to make progress. Having a partner in crime would have made things much more productive (and fun). Did you get a sense that the pair were feeding off each other’s enthusiasm, and made quicker progress for it? (While acknowledging there was no control experiment with a lone student.)
I think they were feeding off each other. There was probably a bit of friendly competition, but more importantly, near the end when it was crunch time, they divided up all the tasks and got twice as much done as a result. It was definitely a good lesson in the powers of collaboration.
I’m actually kind of dis-heartened that new graduate students would have previously needed practical pipetting demonstrations and suchlike. What on earth did they learn in their undergraduate lab courses?
Still, the new scheme seems to have worked out well for you, so fair enough.
I was exaggerating a little. They all receive new pipettor sets as a starter pack, and I didn’t notice anyone having any problems using them. I think what they hadn’t done a lot of was actual experimental design, and of course, a lot of the techniques were brand-new to them. I was proud of the students for working out how to extract and analyze RNA when our lab actually doesn’t work with RNA. They just knocked on the right doors.
Sounds like a great idea! I always think that the most important thing to learn in any new job is who to ask for which kinds of help.
And how not to ask the same person too often…
And then, once you’ve been there long enough that people are asking you for help, you need to learn how to be helpful without getting yourself a reputation for being so helpful that you spend more time helping other people with their jobs than doing your own.
I think I’m guilty of that one. I really like helping people. Must learn to say no a bit more often.