Passing on the Fountain of Knowledge

Knowing when to say no
JUNE 2018
Media Arts and Sciences

As soon as I officially started as a grad student in the Media Arts & Sciences program, I was paired with a more experienced graduate student in the lab to learn protein engineering and molecular cloning techniques for the first time in my life, though my undergrad studies had covered some of the theory.

My group (with 40-50 graduate students and postdocs) maintains a wealth of knowledge from various disciplines, and protein engineering is just one of them. Some lab members develop viruses, others build novel microscopes, and many do animal surgeries.

By collaborating, internally amongst lab mates and externally with other groups, we are able to push neuroscience forward using everyone’s combined expertise.

In this group, no one works on a research topic alone and multiple projects will rely on the same people to fulfill a specific part of the chain of research. Each year, a few people leave for jobs or postdoc positions, a steady rate of change creates a need for knowledge to be passed down to new students.

I learned molecular cloning in order to jump into a year-old project my mentor started. I also needed to be able to assist with many of his other long-term projects, specifically projects I hope to apply to new experiments involving the relationship between the immune system and nervous system.

It’s exciting learning something new—it’s part of why I chose to go to grad school after working for a few years and also one of the reasons I chose a lab that works across disciplines on dozens of impactful projects. However, it’s a lot to take in the first year.

I still have to take classes while balancing my take-over of certain roles, trying to plan out new research ideas, and enjoying all the activities on and off MIT’s campus that are an essential part of how I stay happy and healthy.

By the end of October, as I was beginning to do more procedures on my own, my mentor proposed teaching me the lab’s rodent surgery protocol in order for me to take over as “surgery czar.”

As surgery czar, I would teach others how to do rodent surgeries, maintain the surgery suite, and continue the mouse experiments for specific projects. Surgery czar is a large role compared to my current role as “freezer czar,” since doing survival surgeries in mammals is very time consuming.

I worked with mice for five years before coming to MIT, and I really wanted a break from handling those animals. I understand how crucial the role is, and I’m happy that my mentor thinks I am capable of filling the position, but for my own sake over the next year, I have to say no.

There are so many interesting classes, amazing research projects, fun clubs/activities, and my own crazy ideas bouncing around my head that I have become extremely careful in when I say yes and how often.

Being surgery czar in a year or two may not be as daunting an idea as it is now, but I realized I have to stay focused on what I’m capable of handling in the moment. The semesters fly by quickly, so it won’t be long before I don’t have classwork to juggle, but it’s easy to want to jump ahead and take on too much when you’re new to a group.

There are enough people in our lab that I won’t feel guilty saying no right now, though. There are plenty of things that I’m mastering already that I will need to share with a new student; in less than six months from now the positions may reverse and a student interviewing for our group could end up as my mentee.