You’re not finished, e.g., Science : Basketball :: Lab : Gym

Renetta @ MIT, standing inside of Juame Plensa's "Alchemist" sculpture of mathematical symbols.

I have the wonderful opportunity to speak with students around the country, and this post is both written for and inspired by them. Sometimes I meet students who are experiencing their first summer internship, or participating in their first research assignment, and my eyes widen when they say things like, “Well, I went to the lab for a few hours, then I didn’t have anything to do, so I was finished and left.” I hear similar thoughts often, and believe me, I’m not trying to produce a generation of workaholics, and my students and colleagues (and family!) will tell you that I need to exercise more work-life balance.  However,  to my young, budding scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, you are not finished just because the next assignment is still in your professor’s head or pending email.  There is ALWAYS something to do, there is ALWAYS something new to learn. Key words here: self-discovery and independent learning.

The analogy in my title is based on a section of a talk that I gave last year at MIT, and I touched on it again when I spoke to summer students a few weeks ago.  When you’re training to be a scientist, you live and breathe the science and love the sense of thinking about problems and finding solutions.  Per my title, when basketball players think about basketball, they are in the gym all of the time; during the summer months, they are on the court.  They play when the sun comes out, and are playing until it gets dark. They love the game! They carry their basketballs around with them. Likewise, you see the same thing with dance, and I’ll throw a little bit of summer TV into the mix to make my point. FOX-TV has a wildly popular show called, “So you think you can dance.” It features young dancers who work to become “America’s top dancer.” I like this show. These folks dance ALL of the time. They dance when they walk, they dance when they talk, and when they go to the studio to practice, they stop to rest, but they often want to keep going. My pastor has a great saying on Sunday mornings … he often says “I’m not finished, I’m just quitting.” He means that he has so much to say and so much to share from the Bible that there is just not enough time to get it all in. We’re often on the edges of our seats waiting for what comes next. Sometimes, he cuts it off, not because he’s finished, but just because of time.

I think that the STEM disciplines get a bad rap, and somewhere along the line, people were given the perception that the time spent practicing that craft of being scientist or engineer or mathematician should be limited. But no, you don’t have to make it fair-weather friend. Love your science and desire to (ethically) discover new things! (Writing this also reminds me to appreciate my husband who is regularly on one of his many computers and reads books on ill-posed inverse problems … for fun!) Simply for the joy of discovery.   Don’t neglect friends and family, but enjoy those equations. My dad used to teach math at Seton Hall University, and he taught me calculus. Because of him, I loved differential equations. When I first started doing algebra, and asked for help, he would clap his hands and say “Oh yeah, GOOD stuff!!” Then he would sharpen the pencils and get out a pile of scrap paper. My brothers will laugh at this memory, because we knew that if we asked Dad for help with math, we were going to be at that table for a while.  The joke was “don’t ask Dad for help with math if you want to go to sleep.” Looking back on it now, he did a great job of showcasing the joy of math. (Dad graduated from Howard University, School of Engineering in the late 1960’s. When I was inducted into Tau Beta Pi as an Eminent Engineer this year, I gave him a dedication in my speech during the reception. He passed away in 2001.)

Now that I’m writing this and have made myself emotional as I remember my father, I want to encourage those of you who are studying math, engineering, computer science, biology, chemistry, environmental science, physics, psychology, policy, etc. You are the next generation of our knowledge base. You have work to do.  So when you’re in the lab this summer or during the year, and you think that you don’t have anything to do, here are 10 things that you can consider:

  1. Read  journal papers that were written by your advisor/mentor/PI or someone in the lab.
  2. Talk to others in the lab. (Don’t be afraid of the postdocs!) Learn about what they are doing. Ask them about their journey and find out why they are so interested in what they are doing. Ask if you can have lunch or tea or a break with them to talk. Do this often.
  3. Read the papers and posters that are on the walls of your department.
  4. Clean up the lab, you might learn something new about the equipment or the chemicals.
  5. Read the manuals and the websites for all of the equipment in the lab. Learn how to trouble-shoot!
  6. Read the FAQs for the software that your lab uses, write some programs for fun, become an expert. Who doesn’t love the local Matlab guru?
  7. Trace your equations back to the origins. (I actually did this with an assignment at Northwestern. I was struggling to understand some equations, and ended up going to the math library and looking at very old texts, including some in German! Some of the old books from the 1930’s explained concepts very well!)
  8. Look up current events that are related to your work. Think about (write about, blog about, tweet about) the real-world applications.  Become a science enthusiast. Let others know who you are. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  9. Go to the symposia in your department and consider connections to your work that may be discussed in seminars in other departments. Become a sponge … absorb the knowledge, even if the content is advanced for your current level. Soak it up anyway. Write down terms and concepts that you don’t understand. Afterward, talk to people about what you understood and what you didn’t understand. You’re in a great position as a student, because you can say “I’m a student and I’m still learning, but I’d like to learn something more about this …” Professors LOVE to talk about their work, and they like when students are interested. Don’t be shy.
  10. Try a new experiment, derivation, or algorithm. (If it involves expensive equipment or chemicals, discuss your thoughts with your professor first to get permission to tinker.) You may discover something new!

You can do this. Your work is important. You have a purpose to fulfill. You are not finished.


Acknowledgement: Thank you to MIT and the MSRP program for generously sponsoring my workshops on this topic and encouraging me to develop this kind of content for students.

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