How Science Outreach Saved My Academic Career

Science outreach is fun and a rewarding experience. But if you are looking for more measurable returns, there are not many. Many scientist see science outreach as a waste of time. Let me show you how I approached science outreach and got some definitive returns that helped me and my lab.

When I joined Mount Sinai as a postdoc, the lab was flush with funding. But soon began the dry spell. A technician was laid off. Students began to graduate and leave, and due to the lack of funds no new student could join.

It was just two postdocs remaining, including me, and one was going to get the pink-slip. Yeah, it was me. The other postdoc was senior and being an electophysiologist was indispensible to the neuroscience lab.

Luckily, my own grant application to New York State Department of Health got funded and the senior postdoc opted to join another lab as a research faculty. I could stay in the lab for another two years as a postdoc, a lab manager, and a technician, i.e as a half god.

Having no one to share lab duties with, I was spending more time in making buffers, cutting brain sections, keeping records for the EPA, IACUC, etc. than reading, think, and designing the experiments to take the projects forward.

Too Many Scientific Ideas, Too Few Hands

So here I was, with my brain full of ideas and only a pair of hands to do the work. To get the much needed work done I could:

  1. persuade my PI to hire people
  2. spend much more time in the lab
  3. ask friends and family to help me out in their free time

Option one was out of question. Lab budget was already in red. We were keeping and borrowing every bit possible just to keep the lab open.

Option two was not always possible. My son was three at the time and growing fast. Seeing a developing human brain and studying the (funny) ways it interacts with the outside world was much more fun than figuring out synaptic plasticity during mouse development. Plus we had moved to the suburbs, so commuting took a good chunk of my time.

As option three, my wife, who could not work at that time because of visa restrictions, had already volunteered in the lab until the day our son was born.

If I wanted to spend more time with my family and “keep my job” I had to figure out ways to magically get the technical stuff done. I had to find some helping hands. But where?

On one spring weekend, I was strolling with my wife through a village fair and stopped at a booth represented by Ossining High School (OHS).

Wanting to know more about the school district, I began to talk to the teachers there. I got to know how organized and advanced their science research program is. They are always looking for labs that can accommodate high school students to work on their science projects. This sounded like a useful science outreach project.

I was told that the students are not just interested in being in a research lab, but are dedicated and work hard. Unlike other high school students, they do not mind spending couple of summers in a row inside the closed walls of research labs.

Then it struck me.

Doing science outreach while at the same time their students could be the helping hands I was looking for.

science outreach with summer interns

 

Science Outreach With Summer Interns

I exchanged contact information with them, letting them know that my lab might be interested in having their students volunteer in the lab. But before I could give them a full nod I wanted to talk to my PI and see how he feels about it.

No sooner that I had discussed this with my PI, I also received a follow up email from OHS. My PI was supportive of science outreach as long as my efforts wouldn’t get diluted. He warned me that it could challenge my patience. Patient person that I am, I was all for it.

A research teacher from OHS, along with his two students that were interested in doing neuroscience projects, visited the lab and briefed us about their research program. It was decided that both students would work in the lab during following two summer breaks.

Summer came and I began the task of dealing with two high school students that happen to be best girlfriends since their childhood. I could only imagine the amount of giggles and gossips I will get to hear.

When the time came I wasn’t really sure who was training whom; whether I was training them in lab research or if I was being trained in these two faculties. Just kidding.

The students were great, always excited to learn, earnestly taking notes and asking questions. The excitement they showed in learning and doing things I loathed; cleaning glassware, cutting brain sections, making buffers, etc. was amusing.

Equally amusing was to see that excitement wore-off. Within a month they wanted to do their own experiments. They had earned it and stepped-up from working on my spare samples to generating their own.

Being Surprised By the Quality of Summer Interns

By the end of first summer, they were not only independent but had also collected data that they planned on presenting at various high school competitions. They even submitted their research papers to Intel STS, Siemens Competition, etc.

During winter, they came a couple of times to work on their posters. Later I would discover about the competitions they won and their advancement to the next level.

With the recognition they were getting in these competitions, the students were much more inspired during the next summer. Wanting them to realize that science is not just fun experiments you do while chatting and texting, I was a lot stricter this time. We separated their projects and benches. It worked.

They were more serious, responsible and running experiments even during my absence. Being so busy, summer passed by fast. They got some good work done, which they continue to present around.

This experience is helping them with their college choices and earning scholarships. Above all, they learned a lot about research labs and projects, grants and funding, meetings and publications.

To our benefit, the experiments they helped with are being used for grant applications and publications. Apart from running experiments, they organized the lab, made and updated the chemical inventory, and prepared tons of common buffers that the lab still continues to use.

Overall, the science outreach experience was very educational for the students and served the purpose their research program is designed for.

For me and the lab, they proved to be the helping hands I was looking for to help me with routine technical stuff. They did beyond that.

Tips For Managing Summer Interns In Your Lab

  • Training others, specially high school students, who might not had a chance to even handle a pipette can be a test of your patience.
  • You should discover the extent of their knowledge beforehand.
  • The initial training period is when you gain confidence in them and they in you. Reflect on your own past trainings and improvise.
  • Keep in mind, they are young. Their experience with you is their window into the scientific world
  • Bond with them without any attitude. Do not be a surly scientist. That will just scare them away, not just from you but from research itself. Who knows, the student you let go today may be a budding Einstein.

Do you have other good or bad experiences with science outreach?

About Shekhar Patil

Shekhar Patil is a postdoc researcher at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. With extensive research experience in Neuroscience, he has broad interests in biomedicine. He is also interested in scientific writing targeted at diverse audience and communicating cutting edge science to those who need it.

Comments

  1. http://wellcometrust.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/real-school-real-science/

    just reminds me of a nation-wide project amongst secondary school (high school?); well, but it is interesting to c things from a post-doc point of view ><

  2. My lab(s) at NIH did science outreach during the summer and I was always amazed at the quality of the students. If only I had been as studious in my high school years…

  3. What about community college students or non traditional students trying to get lab experience? I’m always looking for ways to get more exposure and experience, but internships are increasingly geared toward high school students or those enrolled at a 4 year university. If you don’t fit the typical mold or on the straight path that goes from high school to college to grad school all as a science major, there is nothing you can do to break in.

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