What does it mean to be committed?

Apr 14 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I've been thinking hard about the situation I described last week with an undergrad student (UgS) who is looking to work in the lab over the summer. The fact is, I think I jumped too quickly to a decision based on my immediate goals, without stepping back a bit. Obviously, as a new faculty member my main focus is getting things DONE in the lab and writing grants. From this perspective it is easy to say that anything that does not specifically lead to producing data that can be used for publications and grants is not worth my time right now. I'm stretched thin enough as it is and as such, should strive to minimize any more distractions at all costs. Right?

Well, the situation with UgS is not so cut and dry. As I mentioned earlier, UgS came to the lab as part of a specific diversity program and would be supported over the summer by this program. This same program is one that I have started a relationship with and written into grants as something I am committed to supporting. Grants aside, I am committed to the goals of the program and want to see it succeed, both as a whole and in my own lab. What I had not taken into consideration was that these students require more work from me than typical undergrad researchers and it is unreasonable for me to hold them up to the same light that I do some of the other students in the lab. I think I realized this on some level, but did not fully appreciate it until I sat down to think about the situation with UgS. This is the point of the program. This is what I have committed to.

Sure, there are flaws in the program in terms of interaction between the coordinators and the mentors and there has to be more support for the mentors in terms of being prepared for the various students who we are sent, but I still think my expectations were in the wrong place. Unfortunately, with everything that has been going on this semester I did not take the time to reflect on this until now, which is entirely my fault. Having spoken to several people in the program and UgS directly, I now feel that I need to be more involved with this student than other undergrads and very carefully set up a plan so that UgS will succeed, despite their limitations. If it means that I need to spend a bit more of my time working with UgS and that one of my grad students needs to watch UgS for longer than they would normally monitor an undergrad in the lab, that's the price I am willing to pay for the goals of the program. After all, what is commitment without being willing to shoulder some cost?

9 responses so far

  • Comrade Physioprof says:

    Your motivation is admirable, but you really need to focus on publishing and getting grants. Period. Once you have a stable self-sustaining research program established, then you can afford to do stuff like this. Do not spread yourself too thin at such a fragile stage of your career.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    and don't have kids or a spouse that requires any attention. right PP? PLS, you are making the right choice here. This is something that you decided fits with your long term plan for whatever reasons, both personal and professional. Trusting you in that, you are right to try to figure out how to make it work. That's what makes the scientist--gettin 'er done no matter what the hurdles.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    CPP - I get what you're saying but if the decision between me getting tenure or not comes down to the 20 hours this summer I might have to devote to mentoring this student, then I probably don't deserve it. I am not taking on something that is going to be so onerous as to distract me from finishing a grant application or a paper and it may turn out that UgS actually contributes more to the lab than I think they will. However, I do feel strongly about the program and do not want to wait 5 or 6 years before I am willing to give my support when I think I would have an impact now.

  • ScientistMother says:

    Can I speak up as maybe one of those "diversity" students? Before anyone can give advice, we need to know what is meant by diversity? I'm a first-generation Canadian. Although my mom was well educated in India, she had no clue about the Canadian universities. My dad did not finish high school before he immigrated. I survived an inner city school, I mean that literally. 2 of my close friends have gone to jail for car jacking someone while high, another OD'ed and a third was shot in gang shooting. I came to university with no idea how the system works, I did not know you could work in labs or until well into my fourth year. When I started my MSc I had never even held a pipette before. It took me longer than others to finish but I am totally awesome now and for all our issues, MSc grad advisor is proud of what I have achieved. Compare this to most of my grad student colleagues. Most of them have well educated parents, half of them have parents as PI's. They've been around science or education their entire lives. Didn't that student show motivation by applying for the fellowship? Maybe they just don't *know* what to do because they've never been exposed to it.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    SM - I think you're hitting on a combination of issues that ring true here and I kept the terminology vague on purpose, for a variety of reasons. The reason I questioned the student's motivation with regard to their application is because it is unclear if it was UgS's desire to apply or whether it was "suggested" to them by the program's mentor, for different reasons that may not be in line with those of UgS. For the extra time and effort, I want a student who wants to be here, regardless of their ability coming in. If they are here because it's something to do for the summer, that is a different matter. In the end however, it is students who grew up in a similar background that you describe that I want to see in the program and to encourage to get experience in the lab. It was my failing for not taking UgS's limited exposure to hands-on science into account when I was initially considering having UgS work in the lab over the summer. By taking a step back and going back to the basics, I am already seeing UgS make connections that were not there for most of this semester. This is a learning experience for me too.

  • Mad Hatter says:

    I admire your commitment to diversity, I really do. I am an immigrant and while I haven't had the hardships SM describes, my grandparents on one side of the family were both illiterate. And I wouldn't have gone into science at all if not for a fantastic undergrad research experience with a great mentor. So I am an absolute supporter of providing undergrad research opportunities, particularly to those who are underrepresented and disadvantaged.What bothers me about this particular undergrad, though, is your comment from your previous post: "Undergrad Student (UgS) appears to be going through the motions every day and seems to have no interest in what is going on in the lab." To me, the real question isn't whether this UgS is as good as your other undergrad researchers, but whether s/he has potential and interest in learning how to do research.In other words, I think you have to believe, based on your experiences thus far, that your putting in extra effort with this student will make a difference. Otherwise, this student would just be taking an opportunity from another student from the diversity program who may really want this and would truly benefit from the your mentorship.You can be committed to the diversity program and its goals, but that doesn't mean every student that comes through that program is a good fit, right?

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    You're absolutely right and part of my change of heart with this student has been conversations with UgS and others who have talked with UgS about their lab experience. If I still thought there was no interest, I wouldn't be pushing it. I think the main problem is that UgS has felt overwhelmed and was shy about speaking up to say so, which led to the impression that UgS was just "doing" things. That, combined with the fact that UgS could only make in into the lab for 2 two hour blocks a week this semester made the lab concepts difficult for UgS to grasp. In retrospect, there are things I should have done to stay more on top of the situation, but I got wrapped up in other tasks this semester. This summer I will have more time to dedicate to this and UgS will be around full time, so that they will be able to see every proceedure through, from start to finish.

  • Arlenna says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with what SM exemplified and what you are committing to! I too feel strongly about creating opportunities for students who normally wouldn't be exposed to research the way I was. I got into research in high school because my little sister's best friend's dad, a family friend, was a PI and his colleague had a research opening. Up until that point, I thought I wanted to be a ballerina or an actress. I would never be where I am today if it wasn't for growing up in a middle class family in the suburbs of a university city. I want to bring those opportunities to kids who otherwise never see them. That's part of the commitment to change the face of science, too.

  • tideliar says:

    Yup yup yup. Good luck.Looking back at my less than salubrious start, I wonder if I'dve have given young me a chance. But someone saw something and helped me out. Now look at me...(metaphorically)

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