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Survival of the fittest: the undergraduate lab

By Niamh Docherty

Undergraduate labs feel like an exercise in winging it, so Niamh Docherty considers how might things be different if we approached them more rationally?

The clock strikes half past three, and I’m in the trenches in a frighteningly white laboratory whilst most of my peers are frolicking around Kelvingrove Park, or however the rest of the student population spend their Tuesday afternoons. The thought of fresh air is almost enough to counteract the sour stench of ammonia that creeps up on me, but I’m not sure whether it’s the fumes or the inconceivable combination of both soul-sucking boredom and constant stress that’s making my head feel weightless. I gave up trying to understand what I was doing hours ago. Instead, I am making increasingly pointless small talk with the demonstrator – my favourite topic of conversation is their PhD thesis, which I don’t understand and they don’t really want to talk about. At this point, I would ask what level of self-loathing it takes to voluntarily sign up for an escape room five times a week, “Once you complete the worksheet in the lab book, you are free to go”.  

Enough with the dramatics, but it does feel somewhat tragic that the laboratory at university was a stark contrast to where I fell in love with science at school, a chance to get out from behind the desk and talk over a Bunsen burner, watching the flame burn bright purple and blue. Suddenly, this magic was gone; bunsen burners were replaced with hot plates, and within the first few weeks of my first semester, I barely kept up with the work that piled up thick and fast before and after each lab. Sometimes, the lab’s inefficiency would make me demented. The cocktail of anxiety and frustration left me questioning my ability and passion for science. Over time, I figured out how to get the most out of the experience whilst maintaining my sanity. Here are some tips that helped me survive four years of science labs. 

  1. Are we there yet? Ask why you are there and what you want to get out of the lab. Is it just a box-tick exercise or do you picture yourself working in a lab in the future? Match your approach and adjust your expectations accordingly. That being said, engaging will make the time go by much faster: draw some diagrams, ask some stupid questions (because there aren’t any!), and you might find it more fun than staring at your shoes.
  1. Get your head in the game. You’re learning new things; it’s going to be uncomfortable. Putting apparatus together and trying to figure out what on earth the protocol means is like a Bake off challenge. Describing what is going on and what your results mean will all come in handy later at university. It’s tempting to wait for everyone else to move on to the next step, but if you have an idea of what to do next (and it’s safe), giving things a go is the best way to get more confident in the lab. Smashing glassware and spilling chemicals happens to the best of us, but staying calm will render this into a funny little anecdote to tell your friends whilst holed up in the library. Embrace the drama and  it will become mundane. Soon, you’ll be the smug ones leaving early – someone has to finish the lab first.
  1. Who needs instructions? You do! Carefully read the instructions and background, then read them again. I can feel you rolling your eyes already, but the lab organisers are rarely trying to trick you. They don’t expect you to know the answers off the top of your head, it’s often in the text. I spent half the time in the first couple of labs going back and forth from my lab manual to the bench because I did not trust what I was doing. Other times, I was missing glaringly obvious clues (must have been the fumes). You will make mistakes, but many of them could be avoided through understanding the general direction of a lab which you’ll pick up from reading the instructions! 
  1. Help! Asking for help is a great way to save time and understand what you are doing. Ask your bench neighbours if you’re worried your question will get a judgmental glare. Often you’ll find that others are in the same boat and you can approach the demonstrators as a group. 
  1. We’re just like you. Understand that the demonstrators are also trying to get through the lab. Demonstrators are often students in later years or postgraduates who have a million other things on their plate, they’re just like you – socially awkward and thinking of everywhere else they would rather be. There is a high chance that they were reading the instructions a handful of moments before you did. They are not all-knowing, if they do know the answer, they are often instructed not to tell you immediately. With a bit of rapport building, they will be more helpful.
  1. Not all labs are created equally. In first year your choices are limited, but next time, find students who have already done the class and ask them everything before enrollment. Do you need to write reports, or is it a question-and-answer assessment style for each lab? If multiple staff members take different groups, do they recommend anyone? A couple of awkward messages or conversations could save you hours of frustration later.

Laboratories aren’t for everyone but give them a fair chance and who knows where you will end up. A few years later I gained a newfound appreciation for the fluorescent lights after doing online labs during the COVID-19 pandemic (if you weren’t there, you don’t want to know). The buzz of the fridges drowning out my racing thoughts, the to-do lists I get to tick off for a dopamine hit, the satisfying smell of methanol and a clean lab bench at the end of the day.  Looking back, I remember undergraduate labs like I do riding a bike with stabilisers; it’s much more fun once you know what you are doing, throw away the training aids and skite down a hill freely. As a PhD student myself now, I still experience the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with mistakes and triumphs with a lab group by my side to help me through the successes, the failures and the lost data. Working in a lab means your effort equates to slow progress. Not even the Roman Empire built the straight roads in a day. 


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