In which I torture a poor, defenseless undergrad

An undergrad just joined our lab.  He’s been here for a couple of weeks, now.  In general, we seem to get two kinds of undergrads 1) giddy and clueless and a disaster to work with or 2) thoughtful and kind and you wish they weren’t going to med school.  This guy is one of the latter.

This morning, the post-doc Undergrad is working with wasn’t here, so he was hanging out surfing the net and I don’t remember how it came up but he said, “So, what is all of this cloning you’re doing?”  At which point, I–in my enthusiasm to talk about my project to a new person who had some background knowledge of biology–proceeded to drag him lengthwise through my entire project, including all of the data that came before my project that led me to start this project.

I know, I know, but he wanted to know!  About my project!  Few people actually want to know, they just ask to be polite.

To his credit, he actually paid attention, never sighed, didn’t run screaming from the room shouting, “Enough!  Enough!” and even went to lunch with me after that.  And he asked questions.   I feel kind of bad about it, though.  He only wanted to know what cloning I was doing and I could’ve answered that without all of the background information.  But, I am pathologically unable to answer a question without giving some background information.  I mean, what’s the point in answering a question if you don’t put it into context?  The thing was, at times it seemed to resemble a class lecture because I was trying to tell him about something and I would say something like, “Do you know about small GTPases?”  And he’d say no and so I’d have to explain what a small GTPase is so he could understand the background.  Then, we got to a point where I was going to talk about a biochemical experiment I did and suddenly I realized this guy had no idea what GST or glutathione were.  So, then I had to explain that in order for him to understand the experiment and the results.

You know, there are times that I think about how much stuff I don’t know.  My advisor appears to have a photographic memory.  I swear he remembers every article he ever read, every bit of data anyone in the lab has ever told him about, every seminar he’s been to.  He has this vast wealth of knowledge and can bring up the most obscure thing from some other cell biology field that I had either completely forgotten, or never knew to begin with.  And I know I don’t keep up with the literature like I should.


Talking to this undergrad, I was reminded of all the things I do know.  And that’s a lot.  I forgot how much I have learned since I started college, since I started grad school, since I started my current project.  And, because I’m always interacting with people who are at the same level or higher, I forget that the knowledge that we possess on what seems like the most trivial things is far beyond the basic knowledge of cell biology.  I’m not sure where I’m going with this except to say that so often the emphasis seems to be on the negative–what you don’t know: what experiments didn’t work, what you’re having problems with, what data is missing from your planned paper/thesis/proposal.  It’s equally important to remember the positive:  what you do know, what experiments did work, what data you do have.  It makes life in lab a lot more enjoyable if you can keep those things in mind.

2 thoughts on “In which I torture a poor, defenseless undergrad

  1. Pingback: Sara Bareilles - Love Song

Comments are closed.