Name: Caroline Farrington
Can you provide an overview of your role and responsibilities with The Young Scientist Foundation?
As a graduate student in the Narla Laboratory, I am responsible for the moment-to-moment mentoring of new students training with The Young Scientist Foundation. My focus is on helping students get acquainted with the laboratory environment, teaching them techniques they will use for years to come, and assisting them in developing an understanding of the scientific process. My biggest responsibility is ensuring that when students leave the lab at the end of the day they understand not only how to do something, but also why they were doing it. I want students to understand how the questions we are addressing moment to moment at a lab bench contribute to the bigger picture. Anyone can teach someone how to pipette, but teaching a student how to approach and answer scientific questions and more importantly why these questions matter or are impactful, that is the real goal. I want students to become excited and engaged scientists during their time with us.
How is the mentoring process structured?
The mentoring process is designed to cultivate a strong understanding of scientific concepts and research processes while fostering confidence and independence among trainees in a lab setting. During the first few weeks, students are introduced to new protocols and concepts, as they learn how we approach and answer scientific questions. As students get familiar with the techniques, they are given more independence and are encouraged to troubleshoot and start forming their own scientific hypotheses. We very much want students to feel empowered and engaged rather than passively observe the process.
How long have you been mentoring students?
I have been mentoring students for about five years now.
What has inspired you to become a mentor?
The first time I mentored I was still relatively new to the lab and research in general, and thought it was crazy that I was already given the responsibility to guide somebody. However, I learned very quickly the value of it. The mentor-mentee relationship can get blurred over time. As students evolve and become independent scientific thinkers, they are capable of challenging me as much as I challenge them. When a student comes to you with a question that you cannot readily answer, you know you are doing something right. It is so inspiring to see students mature in their scientific thinking and develop a contagious passion for research.
The summer program lasts 10 weeks. How many hours a week do you spend mentoring a student?
The mentoring process never stops! In the first few weeks, I am much more hands on teaching students techniques and protocols and trying to reinforce their understanding of a project. But even as students becomes more independent, the dynamic of the lab is one of constant learning, as such we are all eager to share our knowledge and help students whenever they need it.
In terms of actual hours, it is hard to say but a typical day will start with reviewing the tasks ahead of us and assigning responsibilities. As the day progresses, students may work independently on the projects they were assigned but there is always continuous communication inviting questions and someone is always there to guide them.
How does your past experience with The Young Scientist Foundation assist you in mentoring students?
I was very fortunate when I began training to have mentors that took the time to make sure that with every new protocol I learned something valuable. I think that it is critical to make sure students understand why they are doing something, instead of simply assigning them tasks. I strive to never forget this, even on the busiest of days.
What is a typical day in the lab like for you and for a student you are mentoring?
A typical day is spent between generating new data at a lab bench and some time on the computer analyzing said data. For a student it becomes quite similar. In the first week or two students will shadow me as I go through the day, but once they become independent, I give them their own work to do, and consequently expect them to try to analyze their results on their own before coming to me with any questions. Through each week I also try to find blocks of time where we can sit down together and review the project and new data and put it all together to see how their intellectual understanding of the science is developing.
What are the most satisfying and challenging parts of your work with students?
The most satisfying part, hands down, is when you realize students need you less and less because they learned not just the technical skills, but also developed an understanding of the day-to-day processes and can structure their own days and work on their own projects without you telling them what to do. In many ways that may be the most challenging part too. Letting go can be difficult but you need to remind yourself that you gave them the best tools possible to do their work well.
What are some of the key skills you teach in the lab?
Through our the program we cover technical, presentation, time-management, analytical and decision-making skills. While technical skills may be the first to develop, the goal is to ensure that by the end of the program with us students can not only present the work they have done, but also be able to assess their own data and field questions from their peers and mentors.
How do you assess a student is proficient in those skills?
It is easy to assess technical skills. The hard part is assessing their intellectual understanding, whether students are just memorizing what I have told them or really absorbing it and becoming critical thinkers. The best way to do this is to engage with students on a daily basis, asking them questions and spontaneously testing their knowledge while doing work.
How do you ensure a student is not afraid to ask questions?
This can be hard. I myself was rather shy about asking questions when I first started working in a lab so I try to remember that and be as encouraging as possible. I often find that asking students to review protocols or giving them material to read emboldens them to ask questions. The more comfortable students get with the process, the more comfortable they are asking questions.
How do you identify a situation when a student is having a problem? How do you go about helping him or her resolve it?
In a lab, it can be pretty easy to identify if there are problems, because there are so many places in a protocol that allow us to control for mistakes. If something did not work during a protocol you can generally tell and figure out where and why that happened. This is going to happen with any new students as well as with experienced students and, in my opinion, mistakes often become the best teaching tools. If a student seems to have trouble developing his or her scientific understanding that will come through during our one-on-one discussion and can generally be resolved by slowing down and identifying the elements causing trouble.
How do you develop a balance between teaching a student and letting him or her develop a sense of independence in a lab setting?
This can be challenging for me. I am very hands on and sometimes have trouble letting go. But I still have the memory of when I first started in the lab and someone trusted me to carry out a protocol on my second day of working there. I was pleasantly surprised and blown away by the level of confidence and trust. There is a mantra in the lab we pass on to new students: “watch once, do once, teach once.” This really encourages students to become independent quickly and instills in them a feeling of responsibility. I am always there for them as a teacher no matter how independent they become.
How do you integrate a student’s individuality with working in a team?
For some students this is their first time working in lab and with a team of people. Thus, it is just about showing them through first-hand experience how collaboration happens. We are a lab full of different personalities but united by a passion for what we do. As students get more familiar with the lab, their personalities come out and they feel comfortable asking questions and participating in discussion. It is a fairly organic process that we try to cultivate and foster as students develop. Everyone is different, so there is no fixed approach other than being alert and sensitive to students’ needs as we get to know them. We simply try to be role models and show them how we work as a team.
How do you ensure the information you teach turns into applicable knowledge for students?
The best way I know to do this is to ask a student to teach me or another student in the lab. I try to do this regularly when reviewing data or forming a new hypothesis.
What common misconceptions do you think high school students have about working in a lab?
When we ask and try to experimentally answer a question in the lab, we do so around a hypothesis, which students learn in school. However, in a lab, we truly are asking questions we do not know the answers to and I think this may be surprising for students to experience for the first time. You form a hypothesis but are truly looking to prove it wrong or right, and in doing so, we are essentially generating new knowledge that did not exist prior to the experiment being done. This is pretty cool when you think about it.
How do you encourage innovative ideas?
As students get familiar with the general questions we ask in the lab, it becomes a fun exercise to encourage them to form their own hypotheses based on what they have learned so far and to design experiments to address them. Once students realize they are able to form their own hypotheses and answer them, the ideas just keep coming. In science, it is often the acquisition of answers to small questions that result in something big and innovative.
How do you teach responsibility?
I believe you teach responsibility by giving responsibility and seeing how students take it on. If I give them too much too fast, that will make itself known and I can step in. But most often, when you give students the tools they need and the trust to do something, they will not let you down!
How do you give credit when credit is due?
As scientists, our work is generally best known through its publication. When a student who works with us contributes to these publications, we make sure he or she is acknowledged and credited on these publications. (And colleges like that!) As a graduate student, I also report back to my principal investigator, in this case Dr. Narla, and update him on the students’ progress and ways they have contributed.
How does the summer research program demonstrate the effectiveness of its training?
I believe the program fosters the ability for students to propose their own research questions and in doing so many students end up participating in regional and national science competitions through their high schools with their own novel research. That, along with credit on publications, are ways I think students show they have done here extremely well with us.
Can you describe your own research projects?
The Narla lab studies cellular proteins called tumor suppressors in cancer. When these proteins are active they help prevent the uncontrolled cell growth we associate with cancer. But cancer cells evolve to turn these proteins off so they can grow and divide. Thus, our overarching question is asking if it is possible to turn the tumor suppressors back on in cancer cells and curb cancer growth. In particular, we have designed activators of a tumor suppressor called PP2A and I study these activators in breast cancer. This means that I am doing research to demonstrate that these molecules may be potential therapy for breast cancer patients, especially those who do not respond well to the therapeutic options currently available. In addition, these molecules enable to me study how PP2A becomes dysregulated in breast cancer. This is critical information that can help inform the development of future therapeutics for patients and identify the patients who can benefit the most from this specific therapy over another.
What are you currently working towards? What are your long-term professional goals?
I am currently working towards my PhD in Pharmacology at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. When I graduate, I would like to pursue my interests in developing novel cancer therapeutics. I would like to stay in academia to do this as I particularly enjoy mentoring students and would relish the ability to continue doing so while running my own lab.