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Managing minions: Project design

May 25, 2012

Discussion on proflikesubstance’s blog reveals that PI’s rarely take on undergrads because few graduate students and post-docs can mentor undergrads effectively.  Training someone can be a wasteful time sink, but it doesn’t have to be.  As a grad student or post-doc, there is no lower stakes time in your career to hone your mentoring chops and even a part-time six week summer student research experience can be mutually beneficial.  The key – especially for short term minions – is picking the right sort of project.

Even “experienced” minions arrive with near zero skillz.  Let’s say your new minion has run DNA gels before.  Great!  But even if they’ve run a gel before they’ve never done that in your lab and are going to need to be shown where to find the running buffer and told which power supply adapter is the decoy and reminded that you run to red and that ethidium bromide is poison – the gloves are over here – and the shield that protects your face from UV is on the shelf above the camera and a smaller f-stop value means more light and yes you must wear the shield and “gel” isn’t a good file name and used gels go in a special waste bin and – oh my god has it just taken all day to run one freakin’ gel I could have done it in an hour and gotten three other experiments up and running and the bands look wonky because minion let the agarose cool too long and the gel was full of chunks.

This is why the optimal UROP project (for a short term summer student at least) is repetitive.  Really repetitive.

The reasons for a repetitive project are two-fold.  From your perspective, it makes advising much easier.  From the minion’s perspective, it allows them to gain independence and master a technique.   Yesterday it took you and your minion all day to run a gel together.  Today you tell your minion “run a gel and pour the agarose when it’s a little warmer this time”.  And while there will be some questions (is this too hot or can I pour it now?  what was that f-stop thing again? or I can’t remember where the waste can was at, can you show me?) and it may still take all day, it won’t take you all day, only your minion.  A few weeks in, you’ll say to your minion, “run a gel” and your minion will respond “already done”.  And you go “Sweet!  Bring that notebook over here and let’s look at it!” and both of you feel pleased with yourselves.

For a minion, it is difficult to continuously ask questions, paralysing to have no clue what you’re supposed to do next and sucks to be completely experimentally and intellectually dependent upon someone else.  For a mentor, it’s a time sink and a little bit of a drag to constantly need to plan the next experiment, demonstrate, answer questions and be present and available to a minion when you’ve got your own shit to get done.  In extreme cases, mentors end up setting up experiments for the minion in a strange sort of role reversal.  Repetitive projects build up your minion’s skillz and confidence and allow them the joy of being able to totally geek out, independently.  Make your minion a one-trick pony and then give them a reasonably long list of things to perform their trick on.  It’s a little bit awesome to have a minion tell you they noticed that something looked a little bit wonky and they figured out how to fix it themselves.  It’s a little bit awesome to overhear a minion explaining something to another person – even if it just “that’s the adaptor that doesn’t work”.  It’s totally awesome to watch a minion rock out at the bench, interleaving steps and multi-tasking – too busy to talk to anyone – doing their one trick with flare and dedication to “finish everything on the list” before their period of servitude is up.  Help your minion be a good independent productive minion.  Give them a repetitive project.

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