May 08, 2022

The learning curve

Author: Antonia Peter


Looking back at my first year as a PhD student at Maastricht University, I am not only proud of everything I have accomplished for myself but also of what I was able to pass on. Already a year ago, shortly after I had started my PhD, my supervisors told me that a master’s student would be starting in our lab only half a year later, with me as her supervisor. Back then I was too overwhelmed getting to know a new research field and learning new lab techniques to actually give it much thought. However, time flew and soon the first six months of my PhD were over. A new challenge was about to start – taking responsibility for a student who (due to the pandemic situation) had had no chance to develop any practical lab skills beforehand. A real advantage was that she was friends with some of my roommates at the time, so I already knew her before the 9-month internship started. Personally, we got on well with each other, which proved to be the ultimate foundation for this experience we were about to share – she as a first-time lab intern, me as a first-time supervisor. The troubles I had faced during my own master’s internship a couple of years before still fresh in my mind, I was determined to be an approachable kind of supervisor. In the first week, I sat down with her, giving a clear outline of what to expect and advice on how to set up a traceable documentation system. Starting in a lab is hard enough even with the proper guidance. I did not see any reason to let her struggle unnecessarily on her own, e.g. waste time writing protocols that are already established. In the first two weeks, she got the basics to build on. For me, it was very time intensive as expected. However, I experienced first-hand how teaching others helps you learn better. The more she learned, the more it boosted my own learning curve. Especially our lively discussions regarding potential future experiments were extremely helpful. Certain things become so trivial after a couple of years of working in the natural sciences, that I forgot on multiple occasions how hard the beginning can be, but then counteracted in the next minute by grounding myself, realizing that I had made the exact same experiences in the beginning with all the mistakes that go hand in hand with it.

In a week, the practical part of her internship will be over. On one hand, I am glad to have more time for my own research again, on the other hand I will sorely miss that team feeling. I wish for her to be proud of everything she has learned in this short period of time (going from how to hold a pipette to knocking down cytokine expression in dendritic cells within a few months!), to embrace the experience and everything that came with it, and to maybe pass it on to her interns when the time comes. I shall do the same.