Research, Mentorship, and a Broken Liquid Nitrogen Container

Research. Most premeds do it—some to check a box, others to learn, or challenge themselves, explore academia, or even add knowledge to the world. While just doing research to fulfill a requirement can lead to bitterness, and even burnout, the latter can give rise to a life-long passion and skill sets that can benefit a wide range of people.

I did it because I had to….

Now you may brush me off as a stereotypical cutthroat premed, I’ll tell you that it’s no longer the case. I have exceeded my requirement for box-checking and am now in a research fellowship, pursuing my own project. I feel fulfilled and I’m fully invested in my project and the potential it has to add to the knowledge of an under-studied phenomenon. I’m finally doing it for the right reasons and it feels refreshing.

Through a long process of mistakes, unhappiness, and stress, in which I almost dropped my hopes and desires of becoming a physician, I went from box-checking to pursuing a passion. Towards the end of my first research experience, I questioned whether I wanted a medical career. But I did some soul-searching (corny? yes; true? also yes), and gained some wisdom in the process.

It was my freshman year at university, and I was nervous about fulfilling the long list of requirements and recommended activities before I applied to medical school, especially research. When I applied for a research fellowship through and introductory research course and was placed into the lab of my choice, I was ecstatic—I felt I was going to make it.

During our first meeting, my PI seemed like the perfect mentor—he was a big name in transplant science, he offered opportunities of publications, shadowing and research conferences. I can still clearly remember his words at the end of the meeting: “Mentorship is one of the key components in any success story, and is the best way to help the next generation. I want you to promise me that you too will do the same for another student when you too are a physician.”

I promised, of course, and thanked my lucky stars for the opportunity.

Reality hit quickly. Naïve freshman me thought that I’d be working directly under his supervision. So it came as a surprise when he introduced me to the graduate student, “V”, I’d be working under. V was a pharmacy PhD candidate, who was a foreigner that had been in the US for two years and had quite recently started on the project that would be her thesis. She seemed extremely nice, so my surprise was not tinged with disappointment.

After completing endless research safety modules, I was finally in the lab with V, ready to cure cancer, end hunger, and find an answer to the age old question: Coke or Pepsi?

I figured the first few weeks would be spent familiarizing myself with the lab, safety protocols, and methods of the study. However, V jumped right in to teaching me how to do a long and seemingly dangerous tissue processing method involving liquid nitrogen. After two weeks, I was alone and unsupervised in the lab, working away at processing rodent tissues.

A pattern was soon established: V would tell me to be in the lab at some time, I would wait for an hour, then she would answer her phone and text back a to do list for that day, often with a protocol modification with which I was unfamiliar. My day would be spent trying to deduce exactly what I was supposed to do, sometimes having to text her back multiple questions, which were not answered in a timely manner.

I began feeling uncomfortable. I didn’t actually know what it was I was doing half of the time, and spent most of my time figuring out how to get that to do list accomplished without burning down the lab. I was also worried what the post-docs in the adjacent labs thought. I realized some would steal curious glances toward my section of the lab. What if I was exposed for the clueless undergrad I was?

One day soon after, I was pipetting a solvent and a research fellow that shared the lab stopped as he was passing by. To my shock, he looked concerned as he told me that the chemical I was pipetting was a carcinogen and should only be handled under a fume hood. This was how V showed me to do it.

I was upset and finally decided to take it up with V. She told me, “I’ve been doing it for years, and if you want to do it your way you can.” She also let me know that if I felt uncomfortable, then she could simply talk to the PI and have me placed on another project.  This frightened me. I feared becoming the incompetent, ever-complaining undergrad. That was not a label I wanted.

So I told her no, and that I would try my best. Meanwhile, I had not seen the PI in weeks, outside of routine lab meetings, despite my unceasing efforts.

The last straw came as the course was ending. I was transferring a mortar into a liquid nitrogen container to cool it down, when some liquid nitrogen splashed on my ungloved hand (V said we didn’t have the grant money to get the proper gloves), and I reflexively dropped the marble mortar into the glass liquid nitrogen container. It made a huge boom, and liquid nitrogen spilled all onto the floor. The same fellow from before came running over, eyes wide, and asked me what the f*ck was going on.

Not surprisingly, I was doing it the wrong way—the way V showed me how. The whole incident could have been avoided by simply poring the liquid nitrogen into a Styrofoam container.

I called immediately and explained what happened. She was nowhere near campus, but after screaming at me, she told me to wait for her. Two hours later, she arrived with further yelling and told me that I would have to pay a few hundred dollars for the broken container.

I went back to my dorm after with a million thoughts racing through my mind a minute. I laid on the hard, unforgiving bed that night, unable to get more than a few hours of sleep. What was I going to do? Is this what research is like? Am I doing something wrong?

Soon after, I told a biology lab teaching assistant whom I trusted. In her shock, she told me I was in no way responsible for paying anything and that I should talk to my seeming-absent PI.

This was easy enough—I just had to talk to the PI after a lab meeting. But what if he wouldn’t trust me and kick me out of the lab? What if I got a bad grade? What if that affected my GPA? Thoughts continued to run through my head during busy days and now sleepless nights.

I never ended up telling the PI. I left the lab, vowing never to do basic science research again. I was bitter, disappointed, and unsure of my aptitude for medicine. Actually, I was unsure whether I really even wanted to be a doctor. It took me a while before I even thought of doing any type of research again.

Not telling the PI is one of my biggest regrets to this day. If I were more upfront, this whole situation may have been avoided. Even if he’d kicked me out of the lab, it would have been for the better. However, I learned many important things that will help me throughout my life and career.

Fast forward to today (about a year and a half later). I am now working on my own project in the field of health economics, under a faculty mentor whom I met through a former professor and have a good relationship with. While his reputation is not as large as my former PI, he is fairly well-known in public health and, most importantly, finds time to invest in me.

Realize that research is not just checking a box. Many get into medical school without it, and if you don’t enjoy it, it can truly sap all the energy from you. There are plenty of not-so-great stories out there. However, most experiences (in fact few) aren’t as bad as my first and I attribute that to lack of experience, maturity, and foresight on my part.

BUT DON’T GET DISCOURAGED! It’s not all bad! If you find an interesting field, and find a good fit in terms of a lab, graduate student, and PI, go for it. You may just find your passion. And it’s okay to explore until you find the right fit.

And regarding the promise I made to my first PI? I plan on fulfilling and exceeding it. It’s now my goal to become a clinician-educator: to practice clinical medicine in an academic teaching hospital and teach residents and medical students. I also plan to take on a few mentees, invest my time in them, and help them grow personally and professionally.

By @Premed_Wisdom

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