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The Black Hole

Training students: Not simply lab monkeys…


It’s term time here in Cambridge and this means that rotation students start passing through the labs (6-10 week projects in multiple labs to determine where to complete PhD research).  This is a curious stage in the development of young scientists, because undergraduate degrees rarely equip students with a real vision of what graduate school is really like – so on one hand rotations are really great exposure.  On the other hand, it is such a short period that the “training” that takes place is often sub-par and will feel like a waste of time for both the student and the supervisor.  I will write about the various types of undergraduate experiences in the future, but today, a note about training at all levels in medical sciences.

Generally, I think there are supervisors who are good at training and others who seem to have turned a blind eye to anything and everything to do with people management skills.  This is no doubt a common complaint in many professions, but there are some particularly lab-specific things that are often overlooked in the training process and deserve some attention:

Teaching techniques properly
Only in the rarest of circumstances should a student be given a protocol and told to go figure it out.  If you want a particular technique to be done properly, then you need to teach it properly.  A good mantra for this was taught to me by the senior PhD student who showed me around the lab:  Show it, supervise it, then be around.  Basically, the idea is to let the student observe an expert in action, then let them try it out while the expert watches, and then let them go on their own with you close by to answer questions.  Importantly, this shouldn’t all be done in one go…  give it time to sink in over the course of multiple days and you’ll be rewarded when the student produces data at the level you do and you can trust it as you would your own.

Gauge (and give) independence
All trainees are different and it is the job of both supervisor and student to work out an appropriate level of research independence.  There are some undergraduates who will happily (and productively) toil away at projects with little to no supervision and there are postdoctoral researchers who still require hand holding and an occasional kick in the rear end to even begin an experiment.  All that being said, if the trainee is on the academic track, they need to develop an ability to design experiments and critically assess them in order to make good decisions about which direction to take a project.  If a supervisor simply lays out a set of experiments to be undertaken, we’re going to churn out a lot of cookie-cutter-PhDs and this doesn’t do anybody any good at all.

Junior scientists, not simply slave labour
When a postdoc or PhD student takes on an undergraduate or medical student to train for a defined (and often short) period of time, they often ask the question:  “What research can this person possibly get done in X weeks/months?”  When the answer is “not much”, the default action plan seems to be to ask what sort of labour do I not want to do, and can I get them to do it (enter the world of PCR, sequencing, tip stacking etc).  While these tasks will no doubt fall onto the plate of someone junior, there absolutely needs to be an element of training involved – a glimpse into lab life, contributing to a small part of the research programme, having good discussions about the science and learning the basics.  If you’re not willing to provide these types of experiences, then politely refuse to take on the student – it’s simply unfair to call it training or research experience at that point.

Overall, I think it’s important for people to realise that no single supervisor is greater than the sum of the work of their trainees and each student that you ship out who is poorly trained reflects badly on you.

I do understand that “training people well” is one of those things that supervisors of all levels rarely get appropriate credit for, but I’d like to think that it has it’s own rewards (future collaborations, good international reputation, more productive students, etc etc) making it worth the investment.  Quantifying such skills and training history is a non-trivial task and will be the subject of a future post related to new metrics to assess scientists.

Until then, I encourage anybody who has the position of supervisor (in any capacity) to invest in their trainees for their benefit and for the benefit of the lab and university in general – remember that someone suffered through your questions as well and you’ve probably had help getting to where you are.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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