You have spent days – maybe even weeks – planning the perfect experiment. You have gathered all the materials you need, written down the protocol in your lab notebook, and made sure all the necessary equipment is available. Line by line, you perform the protocol with precision and manage to get through it without any mistakes. Once everything is done, you eagerly look at your data and – nothing.
This is an all-too-familiar and recurring scenario for most grad students at MIT (and everywhere else). Any student who tells you that everything worked on their first try is either the luckiest person alive or, more likely, a liar. Grad school isn’t easy and failure is a common occurrence, but that doesn’t mean you are a failure. How you deal with the pitfalls and challenges that can lead to stress is much more important.
Everyone has different strategies when it comes to managing stress. Personally, I like to spend time in the kitchen baking up a storm, whether I’m making cookies, cupcakes, pastries, or bread. I refer it to as “stress-baking” or “procrasti-baking.” The funny thing is that I don’t even like sugar or sweets that much! I bake because the process of baking calms me down and cheers me up on a bad day (and then my roommates or lab mates are able to enjoy the finished products).
I think that baking is the perfect outlet for me because it is a similar but easier version of the biology and chemistry protocols that I perform in lab during the day. I weigh out my flour, sugar, and other ingredients just like I weigh out chemicals to make buffers. I follow a series of specific instructions to make sure that I add everything at the right time and place, similar to how I would do a DNA miniprep or run gel electrophoresis in the lab. Even piping out decorative frosting onto a cake uses the same motions as pipetting liquids in lab. The main difference is that while my lab experiments fail quite often, my baking goods always come out decently because it is easier to gauge how well your recipe is going and course-correct if necessary.
Obviously, I haven’t always been good at baking – it took me a few years before grad school before I got the hang of things. Now that I’m confident in my baking skills, however, I will usually end up with a tasty (or at least edible) result at the end; if I don’t, I can usually easily pinpoint the reason and troubleshoot. This is quite different from what I experience in lab: when something fails in one of my biology experiments I don’t always know why, even if I think I did everything perfectly. Sometimes things just fail and it’s out of your control, especially in biology.
Having experiments fail on you over and over can really get to you after a while, which is why I make sure to schedule in weekly baking sessions to clear my head. When I pull the freshly baked cookies or cupcakes out of the oven, I’m reminded that yes, I can follow instructions. When my roommates or labmates rave about how delicious the brownies are, it’s a boost to my self-esteem, reminding me that I am capable and competent. I encourage everyone in grad school to figure out what stress-relieving activity would be best for them. Maybe it’s painting or cooking. Maybe it’s something more laid back, like reading or playing video games. Once the stress of grad school bears down on us, it’s easy to forget that we’re all wonderful, talented people here at MIT, so I use baking as a weekly reminder that I’m not failing – lab can just be difficult at times.