Tuning out the Noise

My advice on learning to use challenging lab equipment
NOV 2018
Sarah
G.
Materials Science and Engineering

Have you ever looked at an instrument that a senior labmate is using - one of those behemoth installations that has a million glowing buttons and wires sticking out everywhere - and think to yourself, "There's no way I'll EVER learn how to use that"?

That was what I thought when I saw a transmission electron microscope (TEM) for the first time. And after I got trained on the tool, I dreaded having to use it. I hated that someone could walk in and see what I was doing, or rather what I was doing wrong. I hated being paranoid that I was going to accidentally break the entire thing. And I hated having to reveal my incompetence by asking technicians or labmates for help.

Now, four years later, I use the TEM for my research almost every week. I look forward to popping my sample into the column, putting on some Taylor Swift, and jamming out while I scan my nanostructures for defects.

I think what it took for me to get to this point was not only a TON of practice, but realizing that I needed to stop being so hard on myself. I realized that it's okay to take some time to learn a new skill, that it's okay to ask for help, and that I need to ignore anyone who said otherwise.

I've been trained on a number of scientific instruments in grad school so far, and each time I go through the process, I pick up new strategies for how to go about learning to use a tool that looks ridiculously complex. Some of these techniques are actual items you can put on a to-do list and check off, but some are more about maintaining a healthy mental state while being put through trial by fire in the lab.

So here's my advice for anyone who's trying to stay sane while learning a new tool:

Come to training awake

This might seem like a no-brainer, but when someone else is flipping switches and spinning knobs, it can start to become pretty snooze-inducing. I don't know how many times I've struggled to keep my eyes open while I'm being lulled to sleep by an image going in and out of focus on the screen. So do whatever you know works for you to stay awake - I can't do caffeine because of my anxiety, so I make sure to get a good night's sleep beforehand.

Write down EVERYTHING you're told in training, no matter how obvious it seems

"Press the green button to turn on the machine, then wait for the light to come on."

I think to myself, okay, I'm definitely not going to forget that. Then, when I come in to use the instrument on my own, and I find that there are three green buttons, and wait which light was supposed to turn on? Shouldn't it have come on by now?

It took me a few trainings before I started to anticipate these situations. Now I write down every tiny detail about each step and take pictures when possible.

Schedule your first practice session shortly after your training

Research is often slow, so maybe you'll find that you don't actually need to use a tool until a month or so after you've been trained. But if you wait that long until you practice again, you might find yourself forgetting a lot of what you learned during training. I find it super helpful to schedule a couple of practice sessions after training and before I need to use the tool for research - that way, I won't forget what I learned and I will have some experience under my belt before I put my valuable sample in the tool.

Ignore the haters

There are always going to be those people. The ones who talk down to you, who make you feel like crap for not knowing some random function on a tool, who snicker when they see you referring to a manual, who act like it took them two seconds to learn that instrument. So ignore them, because they don't matter! What matters is your research progress and your mental state (in no particular order). If you let these people get to you, not only will it cause you more stress, but it could also hold your work back.

Just remember that everyone started at the same place as you at one point - and people who act like they didn't are faking it.

Don't be afraid to ask for help

I've never met a technician or grad student who would prefer someone to make a mistake on an instrument instead of asking. Most tools are shared, which means that if someone messes something up, it impacts everyone. I definitely used to think I was annoying people when I asked questions about a tool, but almost everyone would rather be asked a quick question than have to solve a difficult problem later.

And if someone in charge of a tool is acting like you're bothering them, well, no offense, but it's their job to answer your questions.

There are so many more technical pieces of advice that I could add, like double and triple check that you shut down the instrument properly, make sure you report all issues, if it won't turn on then check the power supply…

But, really, I think the most important thing to remember is not to let anyone discourage you, even though academia sometimes feels like a contest of who can fake their confidence harder.

All the noise can be difficult to tune out, and it's frustrating that there are people who make an already challenging experience so much harder. But with time and practice, you can become an expert, and the same people who were being obnoxious before will start asking you for help.

And... well, you can decide how to handle that one.