How I got into research

In the sciences we think a lot about how to recruit more [insert underrepresented group here]. There are a lot of challenges to this, such as that many people may not know that there are real paying jobs to be had studying animals/chemicals/theoretical physics, or that many entry-level research positions pay next to nothing so you have to have a certain level of financial security just to start out in the field. But even if you know the jobs exist, and even if you have figured out the finances somehow, you still have to have the confidence to go for it, and that can be difficult. It’s easy to think that you don’t know enough to start research, or that everyone else must know more than you do.

So this is How I got into research: or, I promise you are not less qualified than I was, so just go for it.

I went to college intending to major in something embarrassingly artsy, but a course on oceanography and another on vertebrates quickly set me straight. In the vertebrates course, I asked enough unnecessary questions that I ended up chatting with the grad student TA. I then (key move here) asked him about his research. He explained it, I was interested, and he asked if I would like to help him with it. Boom.

In our first meeting, my grad student mentor asked if I knew what a House Wren was. Nope, I did not. I knew nothing. He still let me work for him. He gave me a shoebox full of videotapes to process, and I spent the summer clicking through them frame-by-frame, trying to catch a moment when the wrens’ leg bands were readable. (I also, in two other entry-level research positions, spent the summer scraping sand away from a fossil hartebeest bone and sieving samples of ocean sediment. This is the science version of being the intern who fetches coffee and files stuff.)

Having proven my staying power by reaching the fall without hurling the videotapes away and screaming “I hate House Wrens!!”, I was introduced to the lab where I would do paternity tests on the grad student’s wren blood samples. At my first interview with the head of the lab, an intimidatingly famous and successful professor, I was asked if I had ever worked in a molecular lab before? Did I know what PCR was? The answer to every question was no, and me shriveling further and further down in my shameful ignorance, until finally the professor said, “Look, you don’t have to look so guilty, it’s okay that you don’t know! I’m just trying to figure out where we need to start.”

After that interview came my orientation to the molecular lab, led by the lab manager. This happened to be scheduled on a day when I was quite sick. If this happened to me now, knowing better, I would ask to reschedule—but at the time I was afraid of seeming uneager, or of missing my one chance, so I clamped down on my nausea and went. “Welcome!” The lab manager greeted me. “I just made some zucchini bread; have a slice.” And because I wanted her to like me, wanted them all to like me—all these smart people wielding their pipettes so confidently—I said thanks, and ate a slice.

Ten minutes into the orientation, the centrifuges were blurring before my dizzy eyes, I was covered in cold sweat, and I felt as close as I’ve ever come to passing out. I have no idea how I looked to the lab manager, but it can’t have been bright-eyed and attentive. “Excuse me,” I managed, and fled to the bathroom to puke up the welcoming zucchini bread.

To recap: I did not know what a House Wren was; I had never worked in a molecular lab before and knew none of the relevant terms or concepts; and in my desperation to make a good first impression, I made a terrible first impression.

And none of that mattered. I learned the stuff I didn’t know. I came back and made it through the rest of the orientation, and learned my lab techniques, and did my work. In time I was training people myself, and working not just with wren blood but with live wrens in the field, and writing an honors thesis and getting it published in a scientific journal, and going to grad school.

I did eventually figure out what House Wrens were. (This is a 9-day-old nestling. Look at the bill on him! It looks very long and pointy to my junco-accustomed eyes.)

I did eventually figure out what House Wrens were.
(This is a 9-day-old nestling. Look at the bill on him! It looks very long and pointy to my junco-accustomed eyes.)

If you think you might want to get into research, try it. Don’t be intimidated because you don’t know enough: everyone starts out like that, and good scientists like to teach. Your job is to be willing to learn. Don’t be afraid of making a bad first impression; try not to, of course, but chances are you’ll do something wrong in the beginning. As long as you stick around and do a good job in the long run, people will remember that about you, not that you started swaying and then ran off in the middle of your first day.

At least, I hope that isn’t the first thing that lab manager thinks of when she thinks of me. I’ve never been brave enough to ask.

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2 thoughts on “How I got into research

  1. Jumping around your blog while killing time… this was funny to read because I just banded four nestling house wrens at my father-in-law’s house today. So adorably awkward!

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