Empty Bench Syndrome


Empty Bench Syndrome

A research bench that has lots of empty shelf space and only a few research items on it.
A research bench that has lots of empty shelf space and only a few research items on it.

— from the Lab Manager's bench

Here’s to all the undergrad research mentors who said goodbye to a great student this semester, and feel that little pang of sadness as they clear the bench for a new researcher who starts this summer.

Even though this article was originally published a while ago, it still rings true. Saying goodbye to students, postdocs, technicians and anyone I've mentored never gets easier—no matter how many times I do it.

Sometimes it's harder to say goodbye than it seems

Last week, an undergrad who spent three years in my lab finished her last experiment, and made the last update in her lab notebook. It was a bittersweet day.

Madi joined the lab the summer after her first year of college. As with most undergrads who join my lab, she was green to the concepts and skills of molecular research. In her first summer, Madi put in 30 hours a week at the bench learning how to pipette, pour agarose gels, perform cloning reactions, safely run the autoclave, keep a proper notebook, and how troubleshoot techniques and interpret results. She learned, practiced, and refined core techniques that she would use for her projects over the next three years.

During the rest of her time in the lab, Madi continued to work hard. She had numerous research-related accomplishments (and a few challenges and failures), received several awards, and made intellectual contributions to her projects. She used her expertise to help train other undergrads, and always stepped up to take on extra responsibility when warranted. And she was nice—to everyone.

On Monday, when I glanced at the empty bench across from me, I felt a pang of sadness. The time I spent training, advising, and mentoring Madi wasn’t my job as much as it was my privilege. As is the often the case.

Balance in the mentoring relationship

As a mentor, getting to know my undergrads is important so I can help them reach both their personal and professional goals. It’s also important so I can direct them to specific opportunities that will help them get the most out of a college experience. Occasionally, it’s important when a student needs encouragement to seek out a campus resource to help manage stress or for other personal reasons.

I also balance getting to know my undergrads with establishing certain boundaries. For example, I never follow students on social media, or give them permission to follow me on my personal (locked) social media accounts. I don’t share serious personal issues with my students, or solicit emotional support even though they might from me. In those cases, the mentoring relationship is a one-way street where I support my undergrad—not the other way around.

Even with this balance, after mentoring an undergrad for several years, I often become fond of a student and feel a sense of loss when they move on. Most of my undergrads start research in the first or second year of college and stay until they graduate. During the course of their research experience, I’ll get to know them through chatting about current events, classes, volunteer experiences, hobbies, and extra-curricular activities. I observe personal growth as they reconsider core principles, and are enlightened by new perspectives from their classmates and labmates. I notice how their ideas about the world change as they are exposed to new ideas and perspectives—cultural and intellectual—in the lab, in their classes, and on the greater campus.

By the time their research experience comes to an end, I’ve been proud of my undergrad’s accomplishments many times over—and not just because of poster presentations, fellowships, or research awards. It’s also the “little” things, such as when an undergrad finds the self-discipline to become an expert in a difficult technique, or says to me, “Of my two options for the next research step, I think I should choose #1 because…” Or the pride I feel when an undergrad analyzes a result and realizes the next question that should be asked, or experiment that should be done before I’ve stated my opinion.

The impact you make on your mentor

So, what I want you to know is this: as an undergrad in the lab, the impact you make might be more than the results and data you contribute. The bigger the impact your research mentor makes on you, well, the bigger the impact you’ve probably made on her. Although she might not be able to tell you if she has other undergrads to mentor, and needs to maintain a sense of impartiality in the lab.

Even though your mentor will think about you, she’s probably not going to send you an email in a couple of months to say, “Hey, I’m thinking about you and hope all is well,” because life will get in the way. But if you send one to her with an update on your life now-and-again, she’ll be happy to hear from you. She might even email back to say, “Good to hear things are going well. Next time you’re in town, let’s have coffee and talk about the last season of Orphan Black,” or whatever t.v. show you used to discuss in between lab work.

And she’ll mean it.

A version of this article appeared in the print and online editions of ASBMB Today (American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.)