Lessons from the Lab

Some insights I picked up during my time volunteering at a chemistry lab. I basically helped a PhD student with her experiment and helped make more chemicals.

Failure is not personal. Am I a bad scientist if all my experiments don’t give me the result I want? Sometimes it’s because of the experiment. I can do everything right, and still have a failed experiment. I need to treat failure like a data point and not take it personally. If failure means incompetency, then everyone is incompetent, because we’ve all failed before. But that’s not true. Failure is just unexpected results from my actions. It doesn’t say anything about my value as a person.

It’s too early to tell. There’s no use speculating about the results before actually getting them. So, be patient and look at the final result. This applies to mistakes, too: mistakes are never permanent. All the mistakes I’ve made have taught me something useful, and they turn out to help me better my lab skills in the long run.

Face the truth. No matter how painful it was, no result means no result. We have to admit that something isn’t working, and change that.

Many explanations. When something isn’t working, there could be many reasons why. Perhaps the chemicals used were wrong, or in the wrong proportions. Perhaps the reaction conditions weren’t right. I learnt to think up many reasons why something happened, and not lock on to the first reason I think of.

Ask for help. Once I couldn’t lock a closet even though I managed to open it before. If I could open it, why can’t I close it? I struggled with it for at least ten minutes before finally asking someone to help with it.

“You’re locking the wrong closet,” he said almost immediately. It turns out that the closet next to the one I opened was also unlocked… you can imagine my embarrassment.

The bigger idea is, it’s always more efficient and faster to ask for help.

It’s really up to you. No one told me how much effort I should be putting in, or how much would be enough. But I treated it like a full time job, and I learned more this way.

Practice. Feeling unconfident about your skills? Use them more. My lab techniques improved as I did more. My sample preparation became faster, and I became more efficient.

Good enough is good enough. The real world is messy; real experiments can be messy too. My sample doesn’t have to be completely pure – a good enough purity would do, sometimes. The extra time spent on getting a purer sample, or getting every single drop of product out of my glassware, was not worth it.

It was a tiring, intense two-month sprint (well, three but I was away for roughly a month), but it was also really fun. I loved how, in my own little lab bubble, I had control over what would happen – I can put in as much effort or as little effort as I wanted. I can try many different variables. This freedom can’t be found in school labs, where time is restricted and you’re following set procedures.

Lab reminded me of the curiosity I had as a kid, and reminded me to dare to try. You guys can try volunteering at a lab too! Who knows, you might pick up more than you’d expect. 🙂

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