What I’ve learnt by having a student

Towards the end of last year, my supervisor asked me if I might have a project for an undergrad student to take on for their dissertation. Immediately, I jumped at the chance because who doesn’t want someone to help with their work? After sifting through many, many emails I arranged to meet with seven undergrads.

Over two days, and too many cups of coffee I met with all of them. Half hadn’t read the recommended paper, which was what their project was going to be based on. My enthusiasm waned. What on earth had I signed up for here? Two weeks later my supervisor and I received an email with the students preferences on. I might add, 3 people that hadn’t contacted either of us still wanted to do the project. Oh no, that’s not how it works, people!


Taken from ErrantScience.com


Fast forward to mid-January when my student started. The first week went fairly well, apart from having to fill out health and safety forms when she stabbed herself with a glass pipette on her first ever tissue culture try. I’m not going to lie; the first two or three weeks really tested my patience.

No – you shouldn’t load 15μl of ladder on a gel, try 2μl instead.

Once the teething problems were over, it was quite strange having to share my bench with someone. Using the pipettes when I needed them, not replacing empty tip boxes, using ALL OF THE SPACE.

To get to the main point of this, what have I learnt over the last three months?

Taking on a student is a huge drain on your own productivity in the lab.

This is especially true in the first few weeks. However, there is something weirdly satisfying watching somebody learn new techniques, especially when they come on leaps and bounds and begin to make their own decisions.

You realise how far you’ve come in terms of knowledge and confidence.

When I started, I fumbled so many experiments. Now, those same experiments are ingrained in my brain, never to be forgotten. I don’t have to double and triple check how much of everything I need to make up different buffer solutions, or how many times I need to wash something, or even how much of certain reagents to add to make an experiment work perfectly first time round.

Teaching someone how to interpret their data is actually difficult.

I’m not too sure exactly how I learnt all of the analysis I currently do, especially as other people in my lab don’t necessarily use the same techniques. Real-time PCR is probably the best example. Getting someone to understand how to calculate ΔCT, then convert to 2ΔCT to display it graphically is no easy task. Especially when you’re looking at three different conditions and nine genes, all in triplicate. That’s a lot of numbers. Don’t even get me started on the stats.


Now, three months later, my lab bench feels a little lonely without her, albeit a lot less crowded. The best part about teaching a student? Passing on knowledge that you didn’t realise you had. She raised some questions that really made me think long and hard about why I do what I do every day, as well as why the techniques we decided to use for my project are the right way to go. You might think that you’d do this already, but until you have someone stood in front of you that you have to explain to the pros and cons of different methods, you don’t truly think it through.

And as a huge bonus, I also got a thank you card and presents at the end. Not that that should sway your judgement at all.


5 thoughts on “What I’ve learnt by having a student

  1. sophiearthur91 says:

    My first student has just finished in the lab 2 weeks ago. She was a medical student rather than an undergrad. Reading this haa just summed up my experience especially when I even had to teach her how to use a pipette to start off with. Im heading back to supervise my second student which im looking forward to but also dreading the lack of productivity on my own project when im so close to finishing for a paper. I would really love to have an undergrad that could help out with my project.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Natasha says:

      I think the dream is an undergrad who already knows how to do everything. Not too sure they exist unfortunately.

      What I basically want is a personal research technician that doesn’t need to be paid…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Olivia Allison says:

    As a student in the lab I really enjoyed this post! I remember on one of my first days working I broke a rabbit skull collected in 1923 that we needed for our research. I must have driven my mentor absolutely crazy. Now that I’ve been working with him for two years I’ve gotten much more experienced and work with little supervision. However, I have to restrain myself from becoming irratated at the new students who always misplace my tweezers! I guess students and mentors both need to be patient with each other during the learning process.

    Liked by 1 person

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