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Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

Jenny walked into our lab on the third Monday of July. Her arrival was expected; Jenny joined our group through a university-wide research program offered to local high school seniors. We met twice before she joined us - first at her interview, and again a few weeks later to discuss her project. She was sweet and enthusiastic and, leading up to her arrival, I was excited to work with her. That morning, though, I was just nervous. I was nervous because I, having joined the lab only a few months ahead of Jenny, was almost as new to it as she was. So while we were years apart in academic experience, Jenny and I were, in the lab, more alike than not.

How could I teach someone from my experience when I barely had any of my own? I made a list of what I hoped Jenny would get out of our time together: basic lab skills, an appreciation for academic research, and an interest in chemical engineering. I turned to articles on how to be a good mentor and how other graduate students felt about mentoring for advice, but as a new student myself, I knew that Jenny and I would just have to learn everything together. This frustrated both of us at first but now after three months of working together the experience has been absolutely rewarding, mostly because Jenny has taught me a few lessons herself - all with one question:

“Could you tell me why we are doing this?”

The first time, it caught me off guard. Motivations often get buried beneath the routine business of benchwork. Constantly asking myself why I use a certain chemical or why I perform a certain step has given me a deeper understanding of standard lab protocols. Standard protocols became standard only through someone else’s time and effort in standardizing them. Understanding the roles behind each step allows me to better manipulate them if needed, possibly creating a new standard.

Reminding myself why I even perform a certain experiment encourages me to get through sometimes tedious lab work. At the lab bench, it’s easy to lose perspective - all I can focus on is getting the experiment done. Explaining our work to Jenny, who had never worked in a research lab before ours, prepares me to advocate for my work by addressing our project’s potential impact. At the lab bench, we often only see the challenges facing our project. Reminding ourselves why we care about our work, and what we hope to get out of it, grounds me.

Still, the reasoning behind something isn’t always clear. Literature can be dense. Theory can be overwhelming. When in doubt, I go back to the basics. I have to do this with Jenny; as a high school student, Jenny has little fundamental understanding of the science behind our work. Teaching her about these topics is much more difficult than I thought it would be. Often, I find holes in my own knowledge and raise my own questions, too. Initially, I was embarrassed by having to review material from classes I took years ago. I wanted to be a model mentor for Jenny, a straight-A student with infinite knowledge. Now, though, I feel no shame reviewing material and doing so has built a library of websites for Jenny and other students in our lab to use.

When I’m stumped, I’ve learned that it’s better to admit when I don’t have the answer to a question. My goal in studying something now is to be able to explain a concept to someone with no background in the field, like Jenny at the start of the summer. If I can do that, then I know I understand it. This has also given me the opportunity to show Jenny how to study a certain concept or skill.

Even with our great working dynamic, things can still go wrong. Most of the time, new experiments produce unexpected results. In the beginning, I worried that this would discourage Jenny. I wanted things to run smoothly. But, when experiments provide the expected results the first time we don’t always learn as much as we would have if something had gone wrong. When things go wrong, we make a list of all the possibilities to explore why. We go back and test each parameter to see what we can control. This helps me to think critically about what I did so that the next time I know how to do it correctly. Unexpected results also show Jenny (and remind me) that research sometimes can be tedious or confusing or grueling - but it makes getting the right results even more rewarding. Mistakes and failures are a part of the process.

Finally, I learned to just trust myself. Even when things go wrong, Jenny was always patient and confident in the fact that I would have the answers or know where to search for the answers. Working with her, I’ve become more confident in my ability to do so, too. While I’ll never have all of the answers, I know that’s okay. As I’ve learned mentoring Jenny, sometimes the experience itself is a lesson.

What have your mentees taught you? Tell us in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user beryl_snw and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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