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041: Make a Difference in Your Lab with Peer Support

Spoiler Alert: Working in a lab is tough.

Yes, there’s the academic challenge, but it can also be an emotional roller-coaster when experiments fail, colleagues conflict, and you push yourself past the normal limits.

When someone in your lab has a bad day, does it sound like this?

Grad Student: (despondent sigh) “I can’t believe that PCR failed again.  I’m never going to graduate.”

Lab Mate: (in a rush) “Yeah, that sucks.  Check your primers again.”

Instead of finding support among peers and co-workers – the very people who understand how difficult lab can be – we often find indifference, dismissal, or half-hearted pity.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

You Can Learn the Skills of Peer Support

woman with help sign
FYI: Most people are not this obvious when they need support…

With a little bit of training in concrete skills like active listening, we can transform our everyday interactions into ones that actually build people’s confidence and help them to find their own solutions.

Grad Student: (despondent sigh) “I can’t believe that PCR failed again.  I’m never going to graduate.”

Lab Mate: (stopping) “Yeah, sometimes it feels like your whole degree is riding on getting one experiment to work. It’s depressing.”

Grad Student: “Exactly! And with our funding so tight, I’m afraid to go into the PI’s office with another failure.”

Lab Mate: “I know.  He’s really been crazy about the money.  He gets mad when experiments don’t work, but everyone knows that’s part of science.”

Grad Student: “Yeah, well I have to find a way to make this work.  Maybe it’s my primers.”

Lab Mate: “I can take a look at them with you if you want. Let me just run this stuff to the autoclave.”

Grad Student: “That’d be awesome, thanks.  Maybe if it works this time, I’ll just forget to tell him about the last one that failed…” (smiles)

It’s a made up situation, but things like this happen every day.  Our peers and lab mates reach out for support by expressing doubt, frustration, fear, and anxiety.  We have the choice to engage and support them, or to ignore the signs and dismiss their concerns.

Walking the Talk

This week on the show, we talk with Juan, a graduate student at Oxford who learned the skills of Peer Support through his college.  With over thirty hours of intensive training, he and a group of other students learned about active listening, nonviolent communication, and adaptive resilience.

What’s more – they practiced those skills with each other, and then in their daily lives.  According to Juan, it transformed his experience in the lab.

We ask Juan what Peer Support really means and what the training was like.  We also find out some concrete ways it’s made a difference in his lab and life.

If you want to learn more, talk with the counseling service at your university to see if there’s an existing program nearby.  Together, we can make the scientific community a more supportive, creative, and affirming environment.

That’s a Fine Ale!

And since Juan is in England at the moment, he shares one of his favorite brews from Suffolk: “Old Speckled Hen.”  We’re just thankful it was ice cold and not served warm and flat!

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