Everyone wants to be in the lab


high school chemistry lab in Penang, Malaysia (2009)

The other night at dinner, I had the impulse to tell someone, when we were talking about undergraduate engineering students and my great pleasure in working with them, “My work satisfies the part of me that could have done that — could have majored in one of the STEM fields.”

I didn’t, though, because I hate that: when people in the middle of very good careers (like me) say something like, “If things had been different, I could have been an opera singer, or travel writer, or doctor.” I worked with someone 20 years ago who was the director of major gifts at an Ivy League university — a very good job by any measure — who would often say that if his life had been different he would be first violin in a major orchestra.  Honestly, I doubted it. How could he know?

So, I try to never say, “I could have been X if not for Y.”

Ha! But here I’m going to do something like that.

I have always loved reading and writing, so it’s really a great fit for me that I have become a communication lecturer who reads and writes and teaches writing and speaking and some ways of reading. When I was in high school I liked English, but maybe my favorite classes and teachers were in chemistry, physics, geometry, calculus, and even shop and music.

Jump ahead to college: I registered for biology, chemistry, and calculus. I loved Calc I, didn’t do so great in Calc II, yet I found biology especially to be tedious and chemistry only mildly satisfying.

Why did I love chemistry in high school and not as much in college?

Here’s the “if not for Y” part.

Chemistry in high school, as well as physics and biology, was taught AND practiced in a lab classroom. Everything happened there: the lesson or lecture, the experiment, the teacher’s office hours, the teacher’s grading of exams, the socializing with peers in class. We sat at the bench in groups of four, learned there, and did experiments.  If you remember this experience, too, and want to be reminded of it, see the photographs in the Flickr album, ECHS Has New Chemistry Lab: link.

My memories of the teacher, Mr. Victor Khoury, and classmates and furnishings and bits of experiments (carbon, and the crucible!) are vivid.


high school chemistry lab in St. Louis, MO (2006)

In college, the lesson happened in a lecture hall, and the lab in the lab. The labs were taught by people different than the actual professor/lecturer, and the professor could be found in his office. The lab instructors we could talk to in lab, and I remember mine in the one college chemistry class I took. I also remember my lab partner and her name and my impression that she would go on to be a star in science, she was so obviously good.

I did like college chemistry somewhat because I liked the special topic I had chosen, the chemistry of nutrition. Maybe if I had known that was a field I would have stuck with it. Who knows.

I hated biology. 8:30am lectures.  Lots of transparencies of stuff happening inside cells. My heaviest textbook. So much looking in the microscope, and not even of organisms. I would have at least liked to see a paramecium or, like in high school, a razored slice of potato. As a freshman, I couldn’t see too far beyond my fatigue with this class, and what it might get me if I stuck with it and advanced through fundamental STEM classes to more focused ones, with original experiments and more time in lab and perhaps a closer connection to the professor or lab instructors. I could not see ahead past the cells, or the grind.

These kinds of reflections are more useful as inspiration for what I can do now instead of what could have been. (What could have been is not going to be.)

I also recently told another person that when I really love my work, it’s when I work 1:1 with another person — be it a student or peer — on their work. I also like when the learning and practice are happening at the same time, which is what writing center pedagogy is for the most part.

Occasionally in my current position, students will come to my office and sit and work on their writing and punctuate their silent process with questions that lead to conversation, the learning kind.  When I have an opportunity, I arrange small-group office hours, where students can come and write together, while talking about writing. We do this at MIT more as a formal part of our practice with presentations than we do with writing, because it is assumed that presenters need an audience. Writers who are writing might not need an audience, per se, but partners and interlocutors provide companionship, feedback, and alternative ways of doing and understanding.

When I think about my professional future, and not my past could-have-been reflections, I imagine integrating what now seems mostly fragmented to me: the lectures, the feedback, the office hours. The 1:1 or small-group hands-on lab approach happens only in a fraction of my time.

I feel myself to be at the end here, either in time or word count. So what’s the big idea? I hesitate to make a big resolution.  If work with words is both physical (whether manual or vocal) and intellectual — and even social — how can those parts of work be integrated, and how much can I shape this in my position?

The question I pose to myself and yet I am of course always interested in the thoughts of my readers, on their own paths or on mine. 🙂

Photo one by Nicholas Chan (2009) on Flickr.
Photo two by “Dad” (2006) on Flickr.

4 thoughts on “Everyone wants to be in the lab

  1. As the daughter of an anatomist and researcher, I could have expected to forge a career in science. But for freshman biology my eyesight was bad (difficult to see through a ‘scope) and my lab drawings messy, so words won out. Yet I am drawn to write about scientists. Did YOUR parents occupations affect your choice?

    • My father was a high school math teacher, and my mother a dental practice administrator. Though I’m sure my father encouraged my love of math and skill with it, I didn’t think then of being a math teacher. The college I went to more pushed students in the direction of theoretical math and research, and I could tell that wasn’t for me — it didn’t seem interesting. (I didn’t know about engineering and applied math at the time, in the late 1980s, as I do now.) My love of writing and reading was all mine, though certainly my parents were literate. I do think there are seeds of my parents’ occupations and especially approaches in mine (they are very practical and action-oriented), yet differences too.

  2. From the time I was able to make the neighborhood kids line up in rows in my garage and play “school,” I wanted to be an English teacher–until I actually became one. I lasted 3.5 years in an all-white, suburban, east TN high school where I attempted to teach juniors and seniors how to love literature they wouldn’t read. Long story short, I quit and stayed home to have two boys in 8 years. When I was ready to return to work, I found the perfect part-time job in a community college library. I LOVED IT! I recently retired after getting my MLS in 2000 and teaching research and working with students for 30 years. My accidental career turned out to be my dream job–perfect for someone like me who always loved books, libraries, and teaching. ❤️📚

  3. I totally relate to your love of labs, although I never seriously considered majoring in a science in college. I never thought about the fact that in high school the lectures took place in the labs — so interesting to consider how what might be thought a lack of resources (only one room!) could actually be part of what made the class more inviting — that the experiments and the lectures were intertwined.

    For what it’s worth, I now firmly see writing as social in addition to being intellectual and physical. I have a very hard time providing written comments on papers, for instance — I just want to get the writer into the room so we can talk about it. Love the idea of small-group office hours.

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