It's a Micro World after all is a blog dedicated to discussing pretty much whatever I feel like. When I delve into scientific matters it will primarily be discussing microbiology (agricultural, bioenergy, and environmental focus). Otherwise, I'll probably ramble on about sports and life.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
Please wait while my tweets load
Happy times! Collaborations have my lab bursting at the seams. We literally have hundreds of samples waiting to be processed, and with the projects we're already neck deep in taking up all of our time, I've realized that I need to do something to break the sample processing bottleneck. DNA does not extract itself.
So to reduce the bottleneck I've hired a student worker. This will be my third. So far I'm 1 for 2 in the category of "productive student worker". The first was a disaster. They were handed over to me from a coworker who "couldn't use them". Hindsight being 20:20 and all, the reason my coworker couldn't was because the student was a bum ... ok, maybe not so much a bum as entitled. As in "this is beneath me." I could sit down with them, outline experiments, have my support scientist hover over them ... in essence, do everything short of running the whole thing myself and it still resulted in a mess. We did get a couple of figures for a proceedings paper (hopefully a manuscript in the near future), but it was an opportunity lost. I shoulder the blame for the lack of productivity out of this student. I was new, it was my first student, and I was still trying to work out of my supervisory style and there are things that I know I could have done better.
Fortunately, the second student was great. So much so that their name found its way onto a couple of manuscripts. They were extremely diligent, hard working, thorough. Took direction, asked questions, admitted mistakes promptly, worked extra hard to not commit them again. Student #2 was the exact opposite of Student #1, even though they both came from the same university, same program, one year apart.
Well, this semester I'm dipping into this program for my third student. They come highly recommended from a collaborator who doesn't have the project and money to hire them for their final semester of undergrad. From what I've been told, they have great hands and are quick on the pick up. No microbiology experience (taking it this semester concurrently with this job), but that really won't come into play when extracting DNA and doing other molecular biology tasks.
For me, the student worker -- especially when it pans out -- is a win/win scenario for both of us. I get a lot of routine, rather boring work completed in a quick time frame. The student makes a great hourly wage and gets lab experience. If they work ahead of pace, I give them more responsibilities and give them access to some of the more exotic work we do. It's one thing to make master mixes for PCR reactions, or pick 200 clones of a community we're going to sequence ... it's another to handle qPCR runs that we're going to use in a publication. Sometimes I will even give them a side project we have sitting around and let them run with it. If they progress to this point, I'll make them do their own experiment troubleshooting, and then I'll ask them to write up a Materials and Methods section for all the work they did. It won't be perfect, but it gets them thinking and writing and it allows me to justify adding them to a manuscript.
Which brings me to the title of this blog entry. Is the student worker more student, or more worker? It's not an easy question for me, even though I'm paying them. The temptation is to use them as more worker, but I think I'd be doing them, myself, and the scientific community harm by not treating them as more student. That's why when I sit down with my student workers we won't just simply outline what needs to be done. We'll go over what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, and how it needs to be done. Since DNA doesn't extract itself, we need to use a kit to do so. Why do we use that kit? Whats in that kit? What exactly does each component do? These are teaching moments. My PhD advisor did the same thing to me when I was in graduate school. I couldn't even use a kit until I had made up all of my own reagents, done the experiments successfully on my own without the use of a kit, and then could explain why each step was necessary for the successful completion of the experiment. I hated that, but in the long run it helped me. My advisors thinking was that if I knew what was going on in each step, if something broke down when using the kit, I could more effectively troubleshoot. I paid in terms of time and tears on the front end, so I wouldn't lose time and grow frustrated on the back end ... when experiments and my graduate career were on the line.
Of course, I only have these student workers for a semester or two tops, so time is limited and I really need to see progress. It does me no good to have them know how a DNA extraction kit works inside and out, only to still have 200 samples sitting in lab waiting to be processed on their last day of work. So there is definitely a balance which needs to happen. So I do the next best thing, which is suitable for all students IMO.
I give them homework.
This post has been viewed: 419 time(s)
Try asking them what they hope to get out of the experience and talk with them to see if you can provide that for them. You'll get 10 times as many assistants who will even work for free if you'll pay attention to what they want as much as you do to what you want.
Thanks for the comment FLA. I've read your comment several times, and I'm trying to figure out if you meant it to come across snarky, or it's just the way I'm reading it.
1. Letters of Reference
2. Lab experience for the resume/CV
3. A decent wage
4. Chance to learn the ropes of a laboratory/institution
5. Experience with particular machinery/techniques
6. An education
Those are the six things that I've thought up that I figure assistants want. Now, perhaps there are more, but they don't come readily to my mind. Now, what do I want?
That's it. I
want need someone to come in and be productive. I have limited funds, and limited time, and I don't want to come across as crass but ... if I can't get that, I'm not interested (whether they wish to work for free or not). The six things I've listed above for the student worker ... those are things that are all discussed when we're conducting the interviewing, and those are things which are earned by the student workers during the course of their stay in my laboratory. I don't need ten student workers working in my lab for free (I'm not at an academic institution), I just need one productive student worker who I'll pay a damn good wage for their hard work (given our locale, and their lack of experience).
I don't know, maybe I'm just out of touch with todays students?