From mid-September until mid-December last year I was on an internship in science policy. Once you count the conference at the start of December and the Christmas holidays, I was left to return to the lab this January after a four-month break.
The aim of my internship was to experience the world outside academic research, and so my project was sent to the back of my mind while I thought about more political topics. Most of my friends did their internships around Norwich, so they had the chance to get into the lab at weekends or in the evenings. But I moved to Cambridge for mine, so I didn’t have the opportunity to nip into the department and get some experiments going. Now, I’m back doing my research, and it’s amazing what’s happened while I was away.
1 You forget more than you realise
I knew from the start of my break that I’d be coming back to my research – and so I was wary of keeping on top of my ideas. In an unexpected burst of motivation, I wrote a mini-report in September, helping me remember where I was before I left. I came back to the project a few weeks ago feeling ready to step right back into the experiments, knowing exactly where I was.
But what I didn’t realise was that I’d forgotten all the basics. First step: set up a PCR. I’ve done more PCRs than I can count during my PhD. And yet, suddenly, I’ve managed to completely blank everything out of my mind. How much DNA do I need to add to the reaction? How many cycles should I set the machine to? How much do I run in the gel at the end? As someone who’s usually proud of my memory, I was shocked. Luckily, I was able to dig out my first ever lab book and find all the numbers I needed. Which leads me to number 2 …
2 You look back at everything you’ve forgotten … and realise how bad your early notes were
Having to look back at the first few things I ever wrote as a PhD student was painful. Looking at it now, I left out so many useful bits of information – things that the eager first-year me was sure to remember. Although the information is easy to find elsewhere, it would have been nice to have had everything concisely written together. Luckily, things improved as I looked further on through the lab books – so at least I’ve improved.
3 The change in day-to-day activities is noticeable
In my internship I was at a desk most of the day – spending a lot of my time typing or writing and only getting up to greet guests or do a coffee run. When I’m in the lab, this is far from the case. I spend a lot of my time on my feet: walking from the office to the lab and back, walking to get a reagent, standing at the lab bench. Getting back into this more active routine has been a shock – my feet haven’t hurt so much at the end of the day since I worked on a shop floor. Even my pipetting thumb seems to be getting tired faster than it used to. Hopefully the muscle memory will come back soon.
4 The people have changed
Careers in science often involve short-term contracts, and people come and go all the time. I also started my internship as a new cohort of students came in. This made returning to my department a very odd experience. There was a new person in my office I’d never met before, and new PhD students in the department. Meanwhile, two of the others were gone. Losing friends in the lab is always sad – but at least I’ve met lots of new people too. Outside my research there were new students getting involved in this blog who I’d never met before (we always love new authors, and they haven’t let us down).
5 Settling back in is seriously frustrating
I work with peas, which take four weeks to grow. I was able to persuade a fellow member of the research group to plant one batch of peas for me, which I could harvest as I returned. Of course, I couldn’t abuse his kind favour, so I only asked him to grow plants for one part of my project. Now, though, I’m stuck waiting another month for the next batch to grow, and so I can’t phenotype any of the new mutants I finished before I left.
As I work with bacteria too, I’ve also had to streak out all the different strains that I want to work with from our freezer stocks. During normal lab working, the process of making agar plates, finding the where the different strains are kept and growing them would be a routine part of my experiments, not taking too long. However, this time really adds up when you need to make as many as I’ve had to while I’ve been setting up. The same applies to making up the various solutions that I use through my experiments. All of this means that my ‘four months’ was extended to an even longer break. It’s been very annoying.
6 You have a lot of time to think, and so return with a lot of ambitious ideas
As I mentioned, I went on a conference just before my internship. Conferences are great for meeting other scientists, and presenting your work means that you get a good chance to talk to scientists who view your work through a fresh pair of eyes. Or they may have a better knowledge of a field related to your work.
I came away from the European Nitrogen Fixation Conference with an entirely new model for the action of the proteins I investigate. This was great. But now I’ve had ideas brewing for a long time – and have a lot of new experiments I want to plan. The same has happened to my supervisor, who is ‘angsty’ for my project to get back on track so we can start testing all our ideas. I haven’t yet had a proper meeting with my boss since starting back – but I get the idea it’s going to be a long one!
I’ve been back in the lab for nearly three weeks now, and I think the worst of the settling back in may be over. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my project moving at a good rate and I’ll finally start trying to get answers to all the questions I’ve come up with over the past few years.
Although it’s been a stressful few weeks, I would still rather be in this situation than have not had my internship experience. But I’m glad to be back – I missed doing my research.
Izzy is a John Innes Centre PhD student. She tweets as @isabelwebb.
Featured image: Lab by Paul/Flickr.