ideas, learning


Career spotlight: Working at a research lab

I glanced without excitement at the message in my inbox: Re: Available Research Position I opened the email with little hope, not expecting good news. After all, I had opened 22 emails just like this one in the last few days. And each one said the same thing, albeit in differing phrases. We were glad…
<a href="" target="_self">Ruwanthi Ekanayake</a>

Ruwanthi Ekanayake

July 15, 2015

I glanced without excitement at the message in my inbox:

Re: Available Research Position

I opened the email with little hope, not expecting good news. After all, I had opened 22 emails just like this one in the last few days. And each one said the same thing, albeit in differing phrases.

We were glad to receive your resume. Unfortunately, we are not accepting research assistants at this time. All of the positions are filled by graduate students, and we usually don’t take on high school students.

We encourage you to apply again in a few years, when you are older and in university.

It was disheartening, to say the least.

I had emailed the entire Psychology department of a local university, explaining my interest in neuroscientific research and my desire to work as a research assistant. And all I had received in return was nope, sorry, and you’re too young.

So imagine my delighted surprise when I opened this email, and instead of rejection—I found an invitation!

I was taken on as a research assistant in a memory lab—the only high schooler in the entire lab.

I expected great things. It would be superb. I would dazzle everyone with my precocious insight and skill, and nonchalantly take this as a stepping stone to a breathtakingly successful stint in medical school.

But, of course, if it was all sprinkles and rainbows, I wouldn’t be writing this.

I walked into my first day, ready to shine, and ended up sitting quietly at the discussion table, not saying anything.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m the opposite of shy and retiring—but I simply didn’t understand anything they were talking about. I couldn’t have contributed anything to the discussion, even if I had wanted to.

I smiled and nodded at appropriate times, and took copious notes. But by the end of the day, I still was no closer to comprehension. And to make matters worse, I was given an assignment to complete in two days.

“You’re sure you’re OK?” my research supervisor asked. “You understand everything, right?”

I flashed her my most reassuring grin. Of course I was OK. I was better than OK. I was ME, for goodness sake. I could handle ANYTHING.

As it turned out, “anything” didn’t include the assignment I had been given. I grappled with it for the two allotted days, but all the diligent Googling in the world didn’t give me the answers I needed. I finally admitted defeat and asked my supervisor for help.

She wasn’t impressed.

“We’re on a strict timeline!” she admonished. “If you didn’t understand, you should have told me immediately so we could have stuck to our schedule.”

I could have died. Embarrassment, frustration, and completely uncharacteristic tears were fighting for dominance inside me. Great job, Ru. You had ONE job, and you couldn’t even do that. Now you’re going to get kicked out, and who knows when you’ll find another position like this?

I didn’t get kicked out.

My supervisor, although annoyed, still wanted me to learn. She explained the assignment to me again, and this time I didn’t just pretend to understand. I asked questions, clarified details, and when she was finished, I was utterly prepared to redo the project—and actually know what I was doing.

This was the first of many lessons I was to learn during my time as a research assistant. Accepting my role as the youngest and least experienced team member wasn’t great for my ego, but it was essential to my growth.

I learned that there was no shame in asking questions—it didn’t mean I was dumb, or was slowing everyone down. As my supervisor reminded me many times, I had been accepted into the lab for a reason. All I had to do was humbly ask for help when I needed it, and everyone was happy to lend a hand.

I also learned the importance of professionalism. And no, this doesn’t just mean wearing power suits all the time. In fact, try wearing anything but shorts in a lab during summer, and you’ll quickly learn the meaning of heatstroke.

It meant being punctual for meetings, thereby respecting others’ time.

It meant meeting deadlines well before they approached, without leaving everything to the last minute. For a girl with an unfortunate habit of cramming for finals the night before, this was a rather painful lesson.

It meant responding to emails and phone calls within 24 hours—no more ignoring the inbox for a week, hoping the message would go away.

And, to a certain extent, it meant that I had no safety net.

Looking back, I was certainly granted more leniency than the others due to my age—but not a lot. There was no spoon feeding: Assignments were meant to completed, and “My computer broke down!” was no longer an acceptable excuse. I definitely came under fire more than once, and each time reminded me that working in the adult world meant that I had to act like I was an adult: taking responsibility for my mistakes, and ensuring that I wouldn’t make them again.

But if working in a lab wasn’t all sprinkles and rainbows, it wasn’t all tears and torture either.

Far from it, actually.

I met some incredible people there: students a few years older than me, who were intelligent, driven, and fun to be around. Being the “baby” of the lab was kind of fun—everyone took me under their wing and mentored me.

I started to feel like part of team, like I was doing something worthwhile. This was no halfhearted group project. This was a collection of individuals passionate about furthering knowledge and delving deeper into darker corners of the brain—and I felt unbelievably lucky to be a part of it.

As I gradually became more comfortable, working became less of an Everest-climb and more of a tire swing—I still had to pump my legs to keep going, but then I could lean into the momentum and let it carry me.

Best of all, I had stepped into the working world and emerged relatively unscathed. I had gained skills in communication, initiative, and teamwork that could never have learned in a classroom.

This was my first step out of the nest.

I’ll admit that I plummeted sharply downward at first.

But—eventually­­­­—I caught the updraft and soared.