Empathy is my middle name (not really). I have the capacity to understand other people’s pain by virtue of having endured my own. That was more profound than this post deserves. There’s a first-year student in the lab doing an 8-week rotation in order to learn about what we do and how we do it and maybe in the process, to do something publishable and worthy of a high five. I’ve been their tutor, of sorts, and it’s been one of those experiences that has the capacity to remind one of the happiness inherent in introversion.
Empathy is my middle name (totally untrue) because I can recall with painful clarity my first rotation, which was also my first real experience in a biochemistry lab doing biochemistry stuff involving biochemistry and electricity. I lacked even the slightest clue. I had to ask the most basic questions about the most basic things. Sometimes, I’d let pride get the better of me and I’d try to do something based on memory (something that I should’ve written down, but didn’t) or attempt a shortcut in order to save time. None of these things ended well, unless learning the hard way could be considered ‘ending well’. And I tend to believe that they can be considered that way, but only to a point. That point exists precisely where the person fails to learn and just lets pride continue to steer the boat.
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there’s a person who shows up in a lab eager and willing to learn. This person is no stranger to lab life, having spent time doing undergraduate work in a lab under the thumb of someone who sounds like an oppressive harpy of a graduate student. Now in the first rotation of graduate school, this person is chomping at the bit to be proven worthy and embarks thusly. It quickly becomes apparent that having previously done many of the techniques appears to qualify this person as an ‘expert’. What follows is a solid month of various things not working because of consistently sloppy technique, lack of attention to detail, and a sincere belief that the problems lie elsewhere.
Now let’s turn the spotlight onto the person typing, he whose middle name is Empathy (is there no end to the lies?). I show them step-by-step how and why to do things. I point out flaws in technique, the dangers of relying on memory alone to recall things, the rampant use of assumption as a method of critical thinking, etc. I ask leading questions pertaining to why something might not have worked, the answers to which, were they thrown into a pot and boiled down, would result in a sticky goo spelling out the word, ‘Carelessness’. And yet, things continue to not work. Same answers to the same questions, with no changes in action. I’ve found myself spending ungodly amounts of time troubleshooting things on my own time in order to determine how in the name of all that’s holy a result that shouldn’t have technically been possible was seen.
Imagine for the sake of explanation that a lab experiment is like building something with Legos. In order for chemical reactions to work the way they’re supposed to, they require the right Legos added at the right times and in the right order. Use the wrong Lego in the wrong place and there will be no joy (or perhaps the wrong kind of joy accompanied by fire/smoke). So, finally in the spirit of moving the project along, I start doing the same experiments and begin to get successful results, based in large part on the fact that I take the time to use the right Legos in the right ways. Today things stopped working for me because I came to a point where I had to rely on a couple of her Legos that turned out to be Lincoln Logs. Ever try building something using both Legos and Lincoln Logs? It doesn’t work. Know why? It’s because one is a Lego and the other is a GODDAMN LINCOLN LOG.
Empathy is no longer my middle name (it’s actually Michael). It’s a great little project that was designed to be straightforward and doable in eight weeks. Instead, it’s turned into the equivalent of an angry, hairy man wearing a shirt bearing the word ‘FRUSTRATION’ on the front and every day, he follows me around flicking my earlobe. It’s tempting to just start doing everything myself, just to get it done, just to move things along. If I do this, however, the student learns nothing other than how, if one fails long enough, someone else will step into the breach and save the day. This is a dangerous lesson that’s being learned, I fear, on a very large scale these days.
I’m taking this all personally, which is absurd and annoying and mildly infuriating. I know better. I’m beginning to see how I’ve been doing this person a disservice by helping to the extent that I already have. Having shown them the correct way of doing things, it’s evident that they insist upon reverting to the Speedy Gonzalez School of Biochemical Half-Assery. I’m going to do us both a favor from now on and let them fail until they succeed. Unless they don’t succeed, in which case I’ll still have done them a favor.
Sir @ September 22, 2010