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Advice for underclassmen seeking lab positions

By Anindita Chanda

Section: Opinions

February 10, 2017

Brandeis is a factory that pumps out pre-meds, and it is a fact that to be pre-med there are a ton of prerequisites that need to be met by students. Aside from the courses that students are required and recommended to take, medical schools also look for whether or not a student has experience researching or working in a lab. While Brandeis is a fairly small school, the number of research labs here is unbelievable and sure enough students often try to email every principal investigator (PI) they possibly can to increase their chances of getting into one. I often encounter underclassmen who are desperate to get into a research lab yet don’t know how to go about it. But there are greater issues that I urge underclassmen to address before they fill every single PI’s inbox.

The first issue is that there are a number of pre-meds who may not have any interest in doing research but email PIs expressing their desire to do research. Often times they are unaware of the fact that if a PI accepts them and eventually finds the student a mentor under whom to work and learn, it is expected that the student will put in a ton of hours behind that research. Along with academics, that student’s top priority should be research. Many people argue that that is too much to expect from students who have a million other things to worry about like classes and maintaining a social life, but the truth is that there are a million things that the PIs, graduate students and post-docs have to worry about, like writing grants or getting data, analyzing those results and writing papers so that they can get their Ph.D.s or become accomplished enough to start their own lab.

The last thing the other researchers in the lab want to worry about is whether or not a student has time for a few hours so that they can be taught how to coat slides or do a Western blot. In the time that these mentors could teach the student how to do benchwork, the mentors could perform it themselves at a much faster rate. Furthermore, a lot of students get into a lab, start doing research in it and realize that they do not have any passion for that particular subject that is being studied. In turn, the quality of work that they then put in begins to decline, they stop committing hours behind it, PIs take notice of it and eventually out the students go.

The bottom line is, if students truly are committed to getting into a lab for the sake of doing research, they should understand some key things. First, to do true research, students should expect to devote a good chunk of their lives to it. Second, if they get the chance to do research, students should take it seriously as a lot of time and resources are being geared towards them. Third, there is no guarantee that a student who does research during their undergraduate years will get published. Undergrad students often wonder with a twinkle in their eye about whether or not there is a chance that they will get published by the time they apply for medical school. The process of getting data worth publishing and meeting and writing with the PI is not simple. In fact, the truth is that there a good chance that if a student is applying straight through to medical school, they will not be published by that time. Does it mean that the research the student performed during those years before applying for medical school was worthless? I should hope not, but everyone has his or her own agenda and goals.

So what do the students who want the experience of working in a lab, but do not necessarily have the time to fully commit to research, do? Fortunately, there is a place for these students—and that place is in media work. In a lot of labs at Brandeis, incoming undergraduates are expected to first get trained and do media work. Depending on the lab, media work can mean washing dishes, making LB and various stains, pouring plates and other tasks. A lot of people underestimate the role of media technicians, but the truth is if a group of media technicians function well and work efficiently, it can help the lab as a whole. If media technicians put in the time and effort, they can help make sure that the lab runs smoothly, that supplies never run out. What’s more is that while it is not the kind of work that involves doing benchwork to gather data, it is the kind of benchwork that will give a student necessary experience of how a lab functions, how to perform basic lab skills, gain an understanding of what is needed for research and how to be organized and work individually and as a team. It is a role that many pre-med students brush aside, but it is one that I believe many should consider if they are torn about how much time they can truly dedicate to research given their schedules but also want the lab experience.

The penultimate piece of advice that I will give on this matter is that it is important to communicate with your PI—and that goes for whether you are an undergraduate researcher or a media technician. Without a doubt, PIs are always busy, but like any situation that involves more than one person, it is important to reach out to the big bosses to express your thoughts or concerns. However, if you do wish to meet with your PI to talk about your situation, I would suggest arranging a meeting with them well in advance.

I suppose the very last thing I will say is that as undergraduates it can become easy to forget that the world does not revolve around us. That just as we are insanely busy with our lives, so are all the other people around us. So whether you are an underclassman reaching out to join a lab, or a student already in one—always think about more than yourself. Always think about the situation in a way that does not solely pertain to you and you alone, and then move forward.

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