How to Have Your Voice Heard in the Lab

Today, we have a guest writer by a member of the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy, Vandy’s summer undergrad research program. Mary Barber is an undergraduate Chemistry major and English Literature minor at Belmont University. She currently works in a cardiovascular research lab at Vandy and studies ways to model cancer therapy-induced cardiotoxicity in human heart cells. When she’s not doing research, she loves writing her own blog and hopes to one day be a physician scientist. Check out her excellent advice on a very important topic.

– by Mary Barber

As an undergraduate researcher, it can seem natural to become consumed by the growing pile of papers you haven’t read, the constant flow of experiments and ideas, and the limitless opportunity for learning every day. It can also be very intimidating to enter a lab where you may feel underprepared, undereducated, and unheard. One of the best parts of science, though, is the value in sharing ideas and conversation between different levels of trainees! This includes making sure your own voice is heard. Instead of fearing that you will be wrong or embarrassed for speaking out, I encourage you to take the chance of using your voice in the lab. The undeniable truth is that you have reached this place for a reason and you deserve to be here. Despite this fact, one incorrect answer may send you hiding away at your desk or feeling inadequate and unintelligent. I am here to tell you that those moments of insecurity will only cause you to become a better, more informed student researcher. Speaking out can be really challenging and uncomfortable at times, but ultimately, we are all here to learn, grow, and contribute to science so it’s important to participate in the conversation. There are many, many times where I ask overtly obvious questions or say something that could have been a bit more eloquent. With these mistakes and experiences, I’ve learned a few trusted ways of making sure that my voice is heard and appreciated in the lab.

  1. Ask questions

The misconception: every question that I ask must be of Nobel-prize-winning quality. I certainly thought that asking simple questions was a misdemeanor in the lab when I first started. I quickly learned that those out-of-this-world questions are few and far between. Instead, I became a lot more active in the scientific process when I began asking questions that helped inform my working knowledge rather than impress my supervisor/peers. Asking questions in science is a given, but it is particularly hard to have the confidence to ask a question in a large group or around other students. In these moments, it helps to remember that you are not expected to know everything and, in fact, it is more meaningful to your PI or mentor to ask something that truly helps you understand the process/technique/concept/experiment. Your PI or mentor will appreciate your curiosity and it will convey to them that you are thinking about the details of your work. Asking questions shows that you are not only able to think critically, but that you are also interested in your research. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask questions about your work. Literally everyone has asked a silly question.

  1. Attend meetings (and events, research talks, hallway conversations, lab outings, etc.)

The misconception: I’m new here, so they don’t want me joining in on their established routine of [fill in the blank]. One of the best ways to be heard is to simply start talking. This means you may have to ask to attend weekly lab meetings or tag along to Grand Rounds or other events that your lab members regularly go to. Hopefully someone in your lab will invite you, but if they don’t you should certainly feel responsible for inviting yourself. You will never be heard by always passing by these types of opportunities. Building a relationship with those in your lab is very important in feeling comfortable to talk to them. If you see your PI in the hallway, start a conversation with him/her related to your work (or just life in general). It is important to start developing your presence in the lab and the best way to do that is to go places where science is being discussed and to engage in conversation when you are there. After research talks, strike up a conversation on the way back about an unclear concept (and trust me there will always be at least one) or an interesting thought you had. If your lab has “outings” during the week, you should go! Just like a friend, building a relationship with your lab takes time and work. Nevertheless, a simple conversation can do wonders for establishing your voice and presence in the lab.

  1. Read and become knowledgeable

The misconception: there is no way for me to possibly understand everything that my lab has done. This is indeed true. The good thing is that you will never be required or expected to know the fine details of your lab’s entire research history. It is important, however, to read up on the latest work and the fundamental papers or experiments that have guided the research in your lab. Becoming knowledgeable about your little slice of science can help you in having conversations and asking questions. It is pretty embarrassing when your PI asks you a relatively simple question (that you can’t answer) that could be easily found in a paper he/she has published. Likewise, there is nothing more satisfying than correctly answering a question about something you’re not expected to know but found by reading a few articles. Reading can be tedious and time-consuming, but it is crucial in cultivating your ability to talk about science. In this way, being knowledgeable not only helps you be heard but also appreciated as a young scientist.

These three ways have helped me the most in feeling like a vital and valued part of the research lab and of my research team. There are countless other ways to be appreciated in the lab – like reaching out to your postdoc, graduate students, undergrads, or even the custodians when necessary or just being a dependable, dedicated worker in the lab (yes, that means taking weekend responsibilities sometimes). No matter what though, remember that your presence and ideas are valuable and your voice deserves to be heard. Just have fun doing science and speak out, speak up, and speak often.