Old habits die hard – even when they’re someone else’s…

Sometimes I find myself hoarding plastic grocery bags in the kitchen cabinet or unplugging the toaster when I leave the house just in case it turns on and burns the place down. In these moments, I realise I’ve become just like my mother.

At other times, I find myself repeating lab suspicions or superstitions: ‘Hey, I don’t know if copper works, all I’m saying is that I’ve never seen it work,’ or ‘I don’t know if [shaking the sample/turning that knob/clicking that option/bubbling nitrogen] helps, but I always do it just in case…’. When I find that I don’t actually have a particular reason why I believe these superstitions, I realise that I’ve become just like my lab mentors.

Kevin was the mentor who shaped me the most, first as my freshman general chemistry teaching assistant, then as my graduate student mentor when he took me on as an undergrad research mentee, changing my life for probably forever. He showed me the basics of organic synthesis – how to tell when you’ve added enough magnesium sulfate, how to run a column, how to handle n-BuLi safely. More importantly, Kevin patiently taught me the basics of research – that mistakes are okay, that it’s no use crying over spilled milk (or broken glassware), and that sometimes you have to do hard things that you don’t want to do in order to grow as a researcher.

Now I’m a grad student, it’s strange to see myself on the other side. Will I ever have enough patience to mentor an undergrad? Will I ever know enough? Does anyone actually know what they are doing? As an undergraduate, I was grateful for graduate teaching assistants but slightly resentful about their resigned attitude. But, just like when I finally realised why my mom used to get so mad if I didn’t take chicken out of the freezer before she got home from work, I now stand in awe of those in my former lab who taught for four or five years and still managed to get any work done.

An image showing two chameleons talking about chemistry

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Aren’t we all lab chameleons?

Similarly, I used to judge the grad students who lived far away and had no concept of how to get anywhere except for the four chemistry-related buildings. As a grad student, I’ve discovered that I both do not know any buildings on campus and that I’m embarrassingly terrible at guessing which ones are which after playing ‘Lecture hall, dorm or cafeteria?’ with my students.

I’ve also found myself absorbing habits from the older grad students in my group. When I started working in the lab, it didn’t take long to notice that my next-hood-over labmate Max would occasionally talk to himself. Months later, when my samples were misbehaving, I found myself snapping, ‘What do you think you’re doing!’ at them in frustration one day. Our brand-new postdoc, who had been setting up his hood and minding his own business, turned around, startled.

‘I… I was just… covering my hotplate?’ As I apologised, I knew exactly where I had gotten that habit from. Thanks, Max.

While I’ve unintentionally picked up a lot of quirky habits from my lab mentors, they have a lot of good habits that are unfortunately a lot harder to learn: how to ask good questions, have thoughtful discussions, plan and prioritise better, design a good experiment, draw boundaries between work and spare time. I still make many mistakes, but I’ve found myself subscribing to one labmate’s philosophy that if you learn one new thing a day, after a year…you’ll have learned 365 things.

I realised I must have learned a few things when one of the first-year grad students was looking for vacuum grease the other day. ‘Get a syringe and fill it with grease,’ Max told him. ‘It’s so much easier that way.’

‘A 12 mL syringe—they’re the perfect size,’ I added, choking back internal tears. I taught Max that trick. Had he really liked it so much he wanted to pass it on? As scary as it is to realise you’re becoming like your mentors, it’s even crazier to see other people becoming like you.