Lab fright, and how to fight it


If you have happened to glance at the About page, you’ll know that when the baking biologist isn’t doing biology or baking, she also sings. What you might not know is that when she sings she gets major stage fright. Those who are not involved in any kind of performing arts might not have ever experienced stage fright. It’s not about being scared. It’s about the racing pulse, the sweating palms, the ringing in your ears as the panic rises…

But on a stage is not the only place the baking biologist gets stage fright: she gets it in the lab too.

When I walk into the lab there is sometimes a little voice that tells me You don’t belong here. It’s one part a Professor with a very dry sense of humour, who was single handedly responsible for me dropping molecular biology after first year (only to decide when I graduated that I wanted to do a genetics PhD….) It is one part a real badgerwaffle of a scientist that I had to work with after graduating, who went as far as telling me to do things wrongly just so he could enjoy watching me screw up. But though there are specific reasons that lab work unnerves me I don’t think I’m alone in finding a molecular biology lab a scary place to be, and I don’t think I’m the only one whose imposter syndrome stretches to the bench. 

The work we do is complicated, and expensive, and a lot of the time you’re working blind. You can’t see whether you have correctly set up a reaction. You can’t judge by eye how good a DNA extraction is. So much of the time it comes down to crossed fingers and prepping as well as you can.

Living with it

For me, the performance anxiety I sometimes get in the lab can be absolutely crippling. I worry that I’m going to mess up, and I worry that everyone will watch me do it. (I’m genuinely not this neurotic in every day life).  I’ve had to work with Mumford and Sons playing full volume on my mp3 player before because knowing there were other people in the lab was enough to give me a panic attack. So I can procrastinate for an entire day saying I’ll just start working on X once I’ve done Y. This, I have found, is not an efficient way to manage a PhD.

I don’t really understand why I have performance anxiety in the lab. But then I don’t really understand why I have stage fright when I sing, either. I am by no means the perfect soprano, but while I can sing fiendish Handel when surrounded by people who don’t know it, if you ask me to sing the Gounod Ave Maria (most requested piece for a wedding. Ever.) then my heart starts racing like I’ve just done the spring finish of a 10k and my palms sweat and I forget to breathe.

Along the way I have realised a few things though. Starting is the hardest bit. And, when you actually already know what you’re meant to be doing, other people can hinder as much as help. So here are my tips for surviving lab-stage-fright.

1. Prep like you’re Delia Smith

When I was a kid I was slightly obsessed with watching Delia Smith on the telly. And I remember how she was always pre-prepared with all her spices and sugar and things in little white bowls so she could add 50g of sugar without weighing it.

When you’re freaking out about doing things in the lab, it can be good to prep like this. Label all of your tubes before you start. Have every reagent out on the bench, arranged in the right order. Be absolutely prepared so that when the protocol says Add X you already have X made up, at the right temperature, and ready to go.

2. Break it down into manageable pieces.

When I first started running I would sometimes struggle to run as far as I wanted to and would have to stop and walk. Sometimes I would trick myself into running further. I’ll just run to that lamppost I would say to myself. And then when I got to the lamppost, I’ll just keep running until that car. Little by little I would bargain to run slightly further, until I was almost home and I didn’t need to trick myself any more.

When a protocol seems big and daunting and like you just can’t even start, start small. I’ll just get everything on ice. I’ll just label the tubes. I’ll just get the mortar and pestles out. I’ll just get the liquid nitrogen ready.

3. Make a To Do List

I love To Do lists. I love ticking things off. But they also help me to stop being too neurotic. If I have a PCR Mastermix list and I can tick off every reagent as I add it then even if one of the summer students comes and starts talking at me while I’m prepping I know for absolute certain that I already added the dNTPs but not the reverse primer.

4. Avoid everyone else

Sometimes, singing a solo in a choir piece is much harder than singing alone for a wedding or something. You know that the people stood behind you, while hopefully being supportive, are usually far better placed to judge your performance than an audience of non-musicians.

Sometimes, doing labwork with a handful of postdocs and postgrads around is great. You can ask questions, you can tell people to throw you a Falcon tube… But sometimes you just need to be on your own, in your own head space. We’re a non-music lab, and my PI really really doesn’t like us wearing headphones, but on some days it’s the only option. Usually though, if I’m really nervous about doing something then the way to go is to get in at 7 when the lab is silent and empty, and get cracking before there’s anybody there to see me.

And if all else fails… 

Since I’ve talked about singing so much, here’s one last way to get over stage fright: throw yourself in before your brain has time to catch up. This is a recording from a few months ago where I was asked to step in for someone who had lost her voice about six hours before the concert started. Not an ounce of stage fright in me: Suscepit Israel

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One response to “Lab fright, and how to fight it

  1. I know what you mean about lab fright, I am so nervous when we had Molecular Biology labs this semester (Although that might be molecular biology in general!)
    I also use my MP3 player to help distract me from being so nervous, I think I spent a large chunk of my recent field course sitting at a bench blaring something or other into my ears. I will definitely give your other tips a go next time I am in that sort of lab environment, although strangely Geology or Environmental Biology labs do not scare me so much

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