One of the parts of my job that I really enjoy is teaching the younger generation of scientists. Sharing my years of knowledge and experience, and watching them try to copy me is just adorable. I often find myself wiping a sentimental tear from my eye as their first experiment ends with the familiar sound of cracking glass and cursing.
This month I’m training yet another proto-researcher in the dark ways of working in a biochemistry lab, which has reminded me firstly, to re-stock the first-aid kit but also how little actual practical knowledge many new researchers have.
My first research job was at a small Biomedical company. It was just me, the technical director, and the lab manger. Which, provided the weather was good enough for golf, basically meant it was just me and the lab manager. She was a 15+ year veteran of labs and probably despaired of watching me trying to get BSA to dissolve by shaking the bottle (instant and long lasting foam, but no dissolving).
Of course, with some people you can see these kinds of issues coming. For example, when one new lab member tried to convince us that sugar melted in tea not dissolved, I pretty much immediately ordered new glassware in preparation. In retrospect, we probably should have thought harder about our hiring policies…
The best story I have from newbie scientists I can’t actually share, because the person involved reads this column and more importantly, knows where I live. Besides I’m sure she knows better now…. probably. But everyone has anecdotes of fresh graduates stepping boldly into their first laboratory job, putting a stopper on an effervescent reaction, and then looking confused when they make a new hole in the ceiling.
But I’ve started to see this rather messy stage as a necessary evil. New graduates have a huge shortage of practical training in lab skills. Not through terrible courses, but just through the practicalities of teaching everyone all the diverse lab skills to anywhere approaching a competent level. Practical skills need, more than anything else, practice – and a 3 year degree has just not got the time to let you do that.
The training during your degree really makes the difference between being as dangerous as a toddler with a fixation for things that are on fire, and being as dangerous as a slightly nervous mouse in a china shop. It teaches you to know that a lab is probably dangerous, and the basics of how not to bleed all over the floor. Which again, given the tight timescale for university lab practice, is probably about all we can hope for.
So the first few weeks in the job should be about screwing up really. It’s the only way to learn your own limits, and more about whatever highly specific brach of science you’ve chosen. The whole point of research is to push the limits, and new scientists won’t know where those are if they don’t go slightly past them – and then spend several hours cleaning up the results. A safe scientist is one who knows how difficult something is to clean up when it leaks/explodes.
Of course, if we’re really going to embrace this concept, then I want to see this recognised in my budget. I think for every new student or member of staff I should get £100 ‘breakages’ money to cover the cost of their vital first steps in a new lab. Although thinking about it, £100 doesn’t seem enough if they go anywhere near the ESEM… *glups nervously*