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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Rex

What’s New? Lab Work After Lockdown

When I found out that the lab spaces in my department were planning to reopen to PhD students, I was equally thrilled and terrified. Lockdown started six months into the first year of my PhD, just after I collected my samples from Japan, but before I managed to get into the labs to start processing them. I was absolutely gutted when the labs closed in March, especially since by then I was sick of my literature review and dying to do something practical. I reluctantly cancelled my training days, shelved my lab admin, and started thinking “well, what now?”. I eventually segued into a computer-based project which kept me busy for most of 2020, but that transition was tough.

When I was given the go-ahead to get started in the labs, I was, of course, relieved to be able to continue with the projects I had planned. Having lost around 9 months of lab time, it was becoming more and more urgent for me to start collecting my data. I should have been really excited, so why exactly did the idea of lab work fill me with absolute dread?

Ultimately, I put this down to a combination of three things:

1) I was definitely rusty. I finished my masters lab work in June 2019, so it had been over a year and a half since I was last in the same room as a centrifuge, let alone using one.

2) Fear of the unknown. The process I was using was new to me, even though I had done similar things before. The lab space itself was also unfamiliar- anyone who does lab work knows that it takes a little while to find where things are stored and how the equipment works.

3) We were still technically in a lockdown. As if starting a new process, in a new lab, after 18 months off wasn’t intense enough, there were one-way corridors, single use spaces, access restrictions and a million and one other added complications which just amplified my worries.

But having spoken to other PhD students in a similar position, I realised that worries about getting back into the labs are pretty common. We’re all living in highly unusual, often stressful times which none of us predicted. It’s completely ok to feel this way whether you are in the labs for the 1st or the 50th time.

So I took a deep breath and launched (shakily) into my lab work in early January. I was half expecting to spend the first day in a permanent state of panic, but when I put my lab coat on and started measuring out reagents, I very quickly found myself feeling calmer. Before I knew it, a week had passed without major incident, and I wondered why I had been so scared in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, the lab process itself has been far from smooth, but then PhD lab work is never plain sailing! The learning experience has also been much more intense than under “normal” conditions, and I’ve had to be independent and resourceful to keep the process going.

I’m now a month in, and by no means an expert, but please be reassured if you are starting lab work soon, or are just starting out in your PhD and are worried about lab work when the time comes. Don’t let the fear of the unknown put you off. Take the leap into the next stage of your PhD and embrace the challenges in front of you, remembering that you are more than capable of tackling the work, even in a pandemic. You won’t regret it.

Based on my experiences so far, here are a few tips to make the process as smooth as possible:

Give yourself a few days (at least) to get into the swing of things. If, like me, you spent lockdown working less than 5 metres from your bed, the commute, however long, is going to be tough on you. Then there’s all the newness to take in. Take your time and enjoy the learning process, without putting pressure on yourself to hit the ground running.

Prepare yourself for the process to be frustratingly slow at points. Forget the fact that lab consumables have to deal with the painfully slow postal service, don’t expect your lab work to be as quick as in pre-Covid times. Set yourself realistic goals and then dial back on those to preserve your mental health and make sure that you hit your deadlines.

Befriend the other lab users in the building. If you’re stuck, or things go wrong, these people will be your support system. As someone who is working alone without a lab technician, the people down the corridor (technicians, support staff and other PhD students) have been frequent lifesavers. Acknowledge that some questions can’t be emailed to your supervisor, and that you might need someone to take a look at that test tube which was supposed to turn red but instead turned blue…

Be confident in your abilities. If you are worried, like I was, you might start to doubt your skills. Remember that being allowed to work in the lab is, in itself, a clear indicator that those around you think that you are up to the job. Take a deep breath and be brave!

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help. Your supervisor may be miles away, but they should still be there for you whilst you are tackling this milestone in your PhD. There are no dumb questions when it comes to lab work, especially if you have a safety concern. Know who your support network is (including your first aid and welfare contacts) and make sure they know when you are working and what you hope to achieve, so they can assist from afar if needed. Remember that you may be working solo, but you are not alone.

This blog post was originally published on the UofG PGR Blog. You can read the original here.

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