I volunteered to mentor a high school student this summer, through a summer research program for high schoolers through the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). I want to get mentoring/teaching experience while I am in grad school because, even though I no longer envision myself in front of a classroom, I think that understanding how different people learn will help me better my science writing.
The past two weeks have been a test of my ability to accept change as well as my time management skills: I definitely underestimated how much time it would take to teach my student laboratory techniques and immunology concepts, and guide her through experiments, while still having time in the day to take care of my own research and studying. Since she started in the lab just over two weeks ago, I’ve had days where I don’t even get my own experiments started until after she leaves- at 4:30 pm!
The thing that makes this particularly difficult is the challenge of explaining that doing research does not mean spending every minute of every day behind the bench, nor does it mean that every day you will get data. In the paraphrased words of my PI, for every minute you spend at the bench, you should spend 2-3 times that reading, planning, or analyzing. That means that a researcher is probably behind the bench for about a quarter of the time they spend in the lab. The rest of the time is spent either preparing for the experiment or analyzing data. However, in a high school science lab, projects are designed to take up an entire class period, and I’ve realized that the students in the UPCI program only have this as the basis for what “lab” is. But a real life research lab is nothing like a lab in a high school classroom.
I’m a bit divided over how to feel these days, because half of me appreciates that everyone entering a lab has a learning curve to understand how things run, but the other half wishes that my student was better apt to understand what I am trying to teach her outside of the particulars of the experiment- that is, learning about how labs run, how long it actually takes to get data, the necessity of having to repeat experiments, etc. In the long run, though, I still believe this will be a beneficial opportunity for me moving forward.