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Mentorship in Science

Thinking about researching in lab? Advice from mentors can be extremely beneficial to aid learning and understanding in a lab setting.


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When I started doing research, I was mentally overwhelmed with the new knowledge and lab techniques that I had to master in a short amount of time. But I was not entirely on my own, thanks to the most wonderful beings in the academia—mentors. They are the people who helped me ease my fear, transition into thinking like a researcher, and made lab work so much fun.

A mentorship experience can be very rewarding as you can learn to become a scientist while building a great relationship.  Here, I want to share with you my experience and advice.

It all started when I looked for opportunities to work in a molecular biology lab 2 years ago as a sophomore. I sent out many emails to professors at the university in our town. In that process, I was very intimidated to approach them because I was simply a high schooler, while they were well-established professors with busy schedules. During that year, I got rejected several times and was very discouraged. I thought that it would never be possible for me to work in a lab before I go to college. Then in my junior year, I decided that I’m going to try again. At least it doesn’t hurt to ask! So I sent out emails again, and a few days later, I was so surprised that I got responses! Soon, I prepared some ideas to talk about and met with the professors, after discussing my interests a few more times, I decided to join Professor Jeff Essner’s lab.

He got me started on a project studying a zebrafish gene, and the project involved all sorts of advanced techniques like molecular cloning and CRISPR-Cas9. How is a high schooler supposed to know what they are and how to do the lab work? Just as I was stressed out, the professor asked graduate student Jordan Welker to mentor me. This ended up making my life in the lab so much better.

I was no longer afraid of getting confused by the experiments because Jordan could explain each step in a simple way. I began to understand what everyone was talking about in the lab meetings as well as mastering those dreadfully long protocols to extract DNA plasmids. Since then, I constantly went to him to ask questions and report my progress.


With Jeff, Jordan, Wes copy

Back row from left: Professor Jeff Essner, graduate student Jordan Welker, Wes Wierson. Front row: Merrina Lan. Image from Caitlin Ware, Ames Tribune


However, a good mentor is not someone who will feed you answers. Instead, he or she will teach you how to think so that next time you face a problem, you can come up with a solution independently. For example, one time I tried to do an experiment several times but my results were always negative. Jordan asked me to show him my lab notebook and looked through all the steps. He pointed out my problems with enzyme concentrations, but instead of telling me answers, he guided me to look up more information online and figure out proper concentrations on my own. And it worked. Jordan taught me not just science concepts but also how to be an independent and conscientious scientist. And these skills will help me in my future education and science endeavors.

A mentor can also be wonderful in many other ways. When I cannot find certain reagents in the lab, I often asked Wes Wierson, another graduate student. And trust me, asking for help is much more efficient than running around to look up every shelf. But eventually, Wes taught me how to find or make reagents on my own, despite my inclination to contaminate RNAs. I learned to be very careful about touching things because all it takes is one speck of dust to ruin an entire experiment.

So my advice for fellow student scientists?

  1. Never be afraid to approach professors. Your passion for science is all you need to start doing research.
  2. Find a mentor whose has similar research (and music) interests. This would keep you excited about exploring the world of science!
  3. Learn new things on your own. Acquiring new knowledge by keeping up with scientific journals or reading articles of TSS (cough, cough) help you understand the current discoveries in the world. You can also have great questions to discuss with your mentor and make more progress with your project.
  4. Ask for help, but try to figure things out by yourself first. All mentors are busy, so it saves a lot of time if you ask your mentor can help you through exactly the part of an experiment that you are stuck with. Additionally, having a mentor is like a journey of learning to be independent. The goal is that you will need less and less help from your mentor, eventually becoming able to do research on your own.
  5. Have fun! Some fun chats or music jams can always rejuvenate you after hard days of work!

Merrina is a Johnson Scholar at Washington and Lee University, Class of 2022. She is an Intel ISEF alum and has lots of Molecular Biology research experience. Outside of science, she is a mentor, tutor, ukulele enthusiast, swimmer, and chef.

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