My experience of doing a studentship
This post was originally published on 13th July 2015.
Please note: Summer Research Scholarships used to be called Studentships prior to the summer of 2015-2016.
Summer studentships are a summer research scholarship project, usually undertaken in the penultimate or ultimate year of your undergraduate degree, where students embark on a 10 week journey of research under the supervision of an academic staff member worth a stipend of $5000 and a life experience jackpot (UoA link). Big Words and a perfect description, but does little justice to the exciting nature of the excursion. This is the story of my experience of doing a summer studentship.
Applying for one was probably the most difficult step of the journey. There were many voices on the way which told me that “you’re only a second year,” “supervisors prefer potential honours students,” “there’s at least 50 interviews per supervisor,” “they prefer med students.” If you have recently just been put off the dream of medicine from first year, this process seems like one of those applications all over again.
I was first introduced to the idea by one of my favourite lecturers on the planet, Ms. Angela Tsai. I have to give credit to her for showing me that there is potential for people like me who want to try new things, and relish rising to new challenges. After emailing a couple of academics during the inter-semester break, I had a few that were genuinely interested in working with me. After all, the grades looked fine, and they were getting interest way before others had even thought about it. In this process of blindly applying and contacting lecturers to show my interest, I forgot one key principle: I too have to look for the right research and supervisor to work with. Think about it carefully – you’re literally stuck with that person for 10 weeks. You’re going to be presenting yourself as naïve, vulnerable and prone to mistakes throughout the entire period. Choose your supervisor wisely! Lucky for me I found my perfect supervisor, unbeknownst to me at the time. But in the process, I had gone through many rejections and many aimless interviews.
So it is the first day of work and I find myself surrounded by the world’s leading researchers in the department of physiology and my most admired lecturers who now happen to be my colleagues. I instantly get an inferiority complex. “A neat table desk to go with that, please,” I order my supervisor in a comical gesture. Seems all flashy but what am I supposed to do? You could say that the first week was probably the most tedious time of my journey. All I could find myself doing was stock taking in the laboratory, making new buffer solutions, and chilling on my desk – still unsure of what my project was really about.
Now finally a week later I am exposed to all these new apparatus that look like sophisticated, over-priced glass Lego pieces. I had one job and that was to not break anything. I swear this was the hardest task – everything was at least a thousand dollars! But besides that, I was supposed to figure out how to build a Langendorff Rig, an apparatus used to operate on the isolated rat hearts. How is it remotely possible to scrutinise and rebuild a castle from glass Lego pieces without risking shattering any glass!? A big problem, but a greater problem was navigating through the Lego pieces and making something meaningful out of it independently. The idea of independence is a tough one – not only did I feel guilty for constantly bugging my supervisor but also my supervisor wanted me to figure things out myself. Thankfully I had many PhD students more than willing to help me, but even then I soon learned that problems were the prominent characteristic on the haven. By the time I began my experimentation work, I had solved at least a trillion problems regarding equipment failure, knowledge voids, and inexperience. I pre planned the experiments and played it in my head continuously before the real deal, but things never go to plan. Perpetually problems amalgamate and you become quite the master at not disturbing your fellow colleagues when things go awry. This was only the training phase.
Week 6 was a big achievement for me. I had observed and partaken in isolating my first rat heart, performed my first experiment on it, and also gotten “about right” results! I was proud of my achievement. Now, the thing that no one tells you at this point of the game is that you’re not a spoon-fed baby that needs to be constantly validated. My pride soon turned into more hard work to bring in better and better results in the only hope of trying to impress my supervisor.
If there was one thing I learned to relate to my parents was the fact that it is so difficult to not bring your stresses from work back at home. Incredibly difficult. I found myself in a hypochondriac state, and despised going to work every day for its repetitive task of making balloons for measuring ventricular pressures. Seriously, how hard could it be to make and blow up a balloon for the ventricles? Extremely difficult. So difficult that it literally formed most of the work at my studentship. Nevertheless, I still looked forward to experiment days. Soon enough, ten weeks had passed by.
After ten weeks of hard work and persistence, it still hadn’t occurred to me why everyone was being so pushy of me to do so much independent work. Yes, problem solving skills are an asset for any candidate but ten weeks of stress was so not worth it, I thought to myself. This was until I began my laboratory experience at stage III. Whilst everyone seemed to be stressed out about the cardiovascular control lab where we had to create our own experiments for the first time, this was home to me. Whilst many were figuring out how to use 3 way taps, I had already mastered the art. And whilst the rest were having a difficult time analysing the data, I had already acquired many statistical tools over the summer. Now, I was only thankful for my supervisor. More importantly though, I became quite the master at problem solving, dare I say taking on the role of a “mini Anuj” of our group. Finally it also came to mind that the research I was undertaking was for the betterment of our society, and should not have been motivated towards impressing my supervisor. The results I had produced were preliminary that may have been used to publish a journal article for a good cause. I could be part of the scientific history! That is inspirational, and for this very reason I would like to do my research over and over again until I could learn to produce the best possible results.
Research can seem dull; you may even be stuck in the laboratory researching about the properties of 4 amino acids for the rest of your life. But, there are many life skills to learn during the process. Besides, my supervisor had visited Europe twice in just that 10 short weeks.