The solution to dilution is not pollution

Dear Doctor Ninja,

I’m an undergrad who just started working in a research lab. In the lab today, I couldn’t think up the mental maths in order to come up with the serial dilutions we needed to do on the spot. The graduate student assisting me kept providing assistance. I would ask, she would answer. I would zone out because I was freaking out about how dumb I sounded, I would ask her to repeat. It was humiliating. Even when I asked questions, I wasn’t fully understanding what was happening, even though I thought I was in the moment.

What I really needed was a pen and paper; that always helps me clear my head when things get jumbled. However, that isn’t an option, because 1. the math really isn’t that hard (i.e. when I’m not freaking out) and 2. we have to keep a sterile environment for the experiment (i.e. no touching things other than the pipette and the test tube).

How do you keep your cool in situations like these? How do you get better at mental math? Most importantly, how do you get better at taking orders and following instructions (aka: listening skills)?


Upset Undergrad

First of all, I think it’s important to give yourself a break. You’re new. You’re excited and you want to impress. If you didn’t have these qualities, they wouldn’t have hired you. Being nervous when there’s both data and impressions on the line is normal and I’m pretty sure you’re not their first nervous student. They get it.

I’m going to answer your last questions first.

You learn to keep your cool and get better at mental math by doing them. Your grad student is there to help you and to make sure that your practice is perfect. They’re not going to let you go off the rails. So just focus on the work, and allow yourself the space to separate your work from how you see yourself as a person (i.e. you are not your work). In a short time, you’ll hit your groove, and you’ll be looking for the next challenge.

But, more importantly, understand two things:

1) You are an investment in this lab. Data does not collect itself. Experiments don’t just do themselves. Both data and experiments cost money. You cost money. It is in the lab’s best interests to keep you (especially after they’ve trained you), and it’s in their best interest for you to produce the best work upon which their findings and publications are based. Reagents and equipment are expensive, whether you’re working in sterile conditions or not. It is far better for THEM that you are sure the data you are generating/collecting is of the highest quality than it is for them to be worried about how flustered you might be getting. So it’s also in their best interests to support your development, and this means supporting you getting better at what you do.

2) Practically, I’m also horrible at mental math. In fact, a lot of mental math comes down to memorizing the common stuff, or printing it out, spreadsheet style. If you know what kinds of dilutions you need to do and if they tend to fall in the same patterns over and over (hint: ask your grad student), then it’s actually in your lab’s best interest not to rely on mental maths at all, because it just takes one slip of one number to render an experiment an utter waste of time and money. If you work under sterile conditions, then taping this spreadsheet to the wall or the table or anywhere you can see it while you’re working is potentially a much better (and more importantly, less error prone) solution than you doing any math in your head.

It will get better. Promise.