From both sides, now

March 3, 2010 at 2:35 PM

From both sides, now


Heather Brenhouse and Jim Stellar


Heather was a graduate student of mine when I was Professor of Psychology and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (something that required her to be patient with my absences from the lab).  She had a great group of undergraduates work with her in the lab and they considered it really their lab.  She got her Ph.D. in 2005 and took a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School at McLean Hospital where she remains as an instructor.  The last academic year, when I was on sabbatical at Northeastern, I took on a student, Kelly Dumais, who worked in the lab that year.  Then, Kelly did her coop placement with Heather from July-December 2009.  Kelly co-wrote the blog just before this one. My idea is that you read them together.


Fifteen years ago (no, really?!) I quietly asked my undergraduate psychobiology advisor, Linda Spear, what an “honor’s project” was, and whether I could try it.  I walked out of there a proud new undergraduate member of her lab, without the slightest idea of what that meant.  I was going into my Junior year, and could only assume that I had committed to a glorified extra lab course, where I would run a few experiments and come out the other side with a ‘With Honors’ next to my degree.


Instead, I had a new job.  The Spear lab became My Lab, where I would go first thing after crawling out of bed in the morning to do surgery on My Animals, and where I would go back after my morning classes to run My Animals, and where I would fall asleep on my arm in the animal room while watching to make sure My Little Guys were recovering okay.  The graduate students in the Spear Lab became my mentors, and listening to their discussions became a language emersion for me.  I picked up the lingo, and I started to Get It.


What’s more, I made some mistakes.  They were My Mistakes, which happened from my own bad decisions.  That’s where the ‘getting it’ really started to take hold, because when you are forced to make your own decisions, you will ultimately fall hard once in a while, which I did a few times.  On my face.  In the mud.  With people around. 


What I got was this:  Just because something is (ridiculously) hard to achieve, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it.   It’s a lesson that every young apprentice needs to learn before they can make decisions with confidence, lead others, and speak with authority.   I am still learning this lesson, and every time I fall (it hurts more as you start higher), I need to gather up all the memories of past wipe-outs, and how they were intermingled with wild successes—this one is no different, I tell myself.  The trick is to start accumulating those memories as early as possible, because they shape your development.  They certainly shaped mine.   


Last year, as an Instructor at Harvard Med School, I hired Kelly, a co-op student from Northeastern University.   She learned quickly, and did what she was asked to do.  Then I started to tell her to do what she thought she should do.  I got wide eyes and a frozen smile.  It was time for her to make some mistakes.  She did!  It was wonderful to see.  During her six months in our lab (Her Lab), Kelly grew from a student to a researcher.  By the time she left, she was questioning experimental procedure and writing sections of a publication.  Those things need confidence, which started with her ownership of her decisions and mistakes.  She has been accepted into two highly competitive graduate programs, and she knows what she wants to do—I think she’s starting to Get It.


Experiential education is more than just hands-on experience.  You get that in a good lab course.  What I have seen, from both sides, is how important ownership is.  If you are a student apprentice, take it.  If you are a mentor, give it.

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