St-St-Stuttering!

A lot is conveyed through language. You don’t need me to tell you that. Because many of us rely on speech in our interactions with others, we often exploit it to form assumptions about them. Our perceived answers to “How well does this person articulate their ideas?” informs us (although erroneously at times) about this person’s, say, sociocultural background, and it’s thinking about some answers that people probably conjure for me that’s got me feeling down lately. Maybe more than usual.

This is what happens when I speak (especially in class when there are dozens of eyes on me or even one-on-one with a professor when I’m obviously the ignorant one in the situation): I open my mouth; one or two words escape; my brain divides into two parts, one that thinks about what I am going to say next, and the other that thinks, “Does this person think I’m stupid? Is what I’m saying stupid? Does this person think I’m stupid? And if I am stupid, will I always be stupid? Does this person think I’m stupid? Will I forever be saying stupid stuff to brilliant people who can see how stupid I am?”; I stumble on my words; the latter part of my brain seizes the controls over the former; my brain shuts down; and everything goes blank. The desire to communicate my opinions becomes eclipsed by a suddenly urgent need to salvage my sentence on some half-decent note.

Nearing the end of September, Almighty Chem Wizard*, Alex, and I attended this special Writers Fest event at the Chan Centre, which featured author Salman Rushdie in conversation with Hal Wake. (I know, I can barely believe Rushdie was in Vancouver too, and I was freaking there!) After the event, when we were gushing about how intelligent and humorous and profound this guy was, Alex said, “He’s cool because he’s at this level where he talks as well as he writes. It’s like you’re listening to someone write right in front of you.”

I never wanted so much in that moment to be able to do just that, to take all of what I loved best about reading–the diction, the clauses, the syntax–how the careful organization of each of them, and sometimes the deliberate misuse of them, can elicit such intense emotion and debate in and among us–and be able to churn it out so spontaneously, offer it in a medium so tenuous–literally mere reverberations of air–that people would be forced to pay attention to it in a way that’s impossible with text. Much as I love the printed word, there’s something to be said for a form of art that can’t be skimmed, that requires real-time engagement, because it’s not like you can rewind speaking, at the minutest level, a word and have the person not yet hear it.

Long, long ago, I watched a documentary on sand mandalas. A posh voice speaking over scenes of crouching Tibetan monks kept stressing the importance of why the mandalas would be destroyed soon after their completion, almost as if to placate the viewer who would mourn their (tragic) loss, but even as a kid I could never disapprove of the monks’ motives. There’s a lot to be said for work that endures, but the ephemerality of all the rest makes them just as beautiful and just as meaningful, don’t you think? Because when they’re gone, that’s when we realize that we lived in that special, almost miraculous moment in which both our existences collided, and no one else will ever have that experience ever again. And although it’s sad when the things we loved aren’t here anymore, the simple fact that they evoked this pure, earnest feeling in us lends greater credence to their value.

Besides, everything eventually gets lost to the human consciousness anyways.

People are often fooled by high rhetoric. You know how in The Merchant of Venice, when Bassanio is all like, “So may the outward shows be least themselves./The world is still decided with ornament./In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt/But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,/Obscures the show of evil?” when he’s deciding on which casket to open to win Portia’s hand? I totally agree. Yet is it wrong to desperately want this power too, to be able to fool the world with my (currently non-existent) verbal prowess? I admire the people who can speak in class so effortlessly and elegantly, because to me it means that their minds also work that effortlessly and elegantly. Meanwhile, all I’m able to muster is a babble akin to some first grader describing her favourite t.v. show–all superficial: “Um, yeah, I liked the part when Franklin shared with his friend, Bear, because that was the kind thing to do.” Makes me feel like I am a first grader.

Part of what I like about writing is that I get to think it through. I can rise above, say, the limitations of my sociocultural upbringing. I don’t have to be that dumb and dumbstruck student when I can mull over questions as long as I want with no one the wiser, and I can give my response in a well-organized, well-articulated fashion with sources to boot. I don’t have to worry about all the variables that come with the spontaneity of speech. Or maybe it’s true, and my mental dexterity will never match up with everyone else’s, as evident by my sucky speaking and writing, but at least for that one moment, I feel that I get an honest chance to try and be a realer me, a me that deserves to have her opinion heard because it’s a damn good opinion.

Problem is, people don’t communicate through pen and paper 100 % of the time; I know this and I can accept this, but it’s hard to. It is so, so hard. And yet…I can’t seem to shatter this tiny kernel of hope within me that someday, I’ll be able to talk the way I want to. Tl;dr: I wish I could speak like a champ in class and in life.

*Obvs not her real name. 

How to Get Into Research Part 3: Getting Out There

Step 2: Submitting an Application

Some labs will specify what they want in their application, but what all applications boil down to is pretty much this: your transcript (a screenshot of your grade summary off of SSC is fine, no need to pay that fee at Brock Hall), your C.V., and a cover letter.

Most labs require a minimum GPA for you to be an RA (usually 75 % or 80 % and above). If you don’t meet that GPA, you can always try to explain in your cover letter why you might still be an excellent candidate, but please, please don’t photoshop your transcript. You know why.

Unlike what your Planning 10 teacher might have told you in high school, a C.V. is not exactly like a resume. It’s more focused on your academic achievements, and you can get a sense of what I’m talking about by looking up the C.V.s of the PIs you’re thinking of contacting. Yours doesn’t have to be as extensive, though, especially as you don’t yet have your Masters and PhD, ha ha. Stick to the resume rule of being no longer than two pages, and you should be fine. Of course, try to tailor the experience you put on your C.V. to what you think might be relevant for the lab. Previous lab experience is great, but assuming you don’t have that, say, if the lab you’re applying for studies infants and you used to volunteer at a day camp for preschoolers, that’s a legitimate point to note down. At least the PI/lab manager(s) will know that you can interact with people just fine.

Most people forget a cover letter. Don’t! Sure, you can just email a PI/lab manager your transcript and C.V. saying, “Here’s my application, Please consider it. Byyyyeee!!!!”, but why not put in a tad more effort? For your cover letter, you don’t want to write a novel, but you do want to include enough information to convey who you are, what experience you might have that makes you a good candidate, and your reasons for wanting to join the lab. Most PIs should have a website that lists the papers they’ve published. It would be in your best interests to go over some of these papers, or at least the abstracts, and note one or two in your cover letter that you found particularly rad to show that you are actually keen on the research of the lab.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an immediate reply, or even a rejection! I got every response from no replies (this also happened to my friend this summer, so perhaps this is not all that uncommon) to a kind reply about how the PI whose research I was really, really interested in was actually retired (!) and chilling in Papa New Guinea (!!) to a few requests for interviews. In fact, the first interview I was about to have I never got to go to, because later on I learned I needed a lab for PSYC 366, and the lab I wanted to work in couldn’t accommodate. The struggles of applying to be an RA are like the struggles of applying for a job: people get hired when they have past experience in the field, but how are you supposed to get to that point when you have no experience??? My friends, the tough answer is perseverance.

Step 3: Mastering the Interview

Interviews are conducted differently for each lab. Some questions you might be asked are: What are you planning to get out of being an RA? What experience do you have that’s relevant for XYZ, which is a common RA task in this lab? Are you planning to pursue research further after you graduate? My advice? Be honest, and if you really want to be a part of this lab, let your enthusiasm show! In my experience, this is just as much an opportunity for the interviewer to tell you more about the lab as it is for you to convey why you want to be in the lab. Labs need people to run, and it’s best to know from the get-go whether you and the lab are a good fit. Positive feelings have to be mutual.

Step 4: What Next?

There are two kinds of labs; wet labs and dry labs. Think micropipettes for the former and human participants for the latter. As an RA for either of these labs, you’re likely to start out doing administrative work: cleaning, preparing solutions, booking, data entry etc. Take this as an opportunity to explore the workings of your lab a little more, like the people and the research. Once you get a feel for this, if you’re still pretty enthusiastic about what you’re doing, consider asking the PI to take on more work. From my experience, there’s always room for growth as an RA, even if you are just an undergraduate student. I’ve known RAs who’ve taken on actual studies and had their names included in research papers and RAs who have presented in conferences from BC to Texas. If you’re just starting out, consider presenting for UBC undergraduate conferences like LSURC and MURC.

Being an volunteer RA allows you to move onto other positions in the lab that allow you to take on more responsibility. For Psychology/BNS students, you can apply to be a Directed Studies student through your undergraduate advisor. What this involves is taking on your own research project and writing a paper about it, either for one term or the full school year depending on what you and your PI work out. If you want to be more serious about it, consider becoming an Honours student. Conduct wicked science and earn school credit! If you’re more financially inclined, look into becoming a Work Learn student. Get paid to be an RA!

So that’s a wrap! Before I end off this series, I want to say a few things because I can never stop typing, ha ha. (1) It’s never too late or too early to get into research. PIs/lab managers deliberately seek out young RAs (read: first and second year students), because there is potential for these RAs to stick around. If you’re older, that’s not so bad either; you’ve likely accumulated a lot of experience to help you out with the application process. (2) Most labs seek out RAs at the beginning of a term, and some labs even operate over the summer if you want something to do and have less schoolwork to juggle. Keep this in mind when you send off your applications. (3) Some labs are huge and have as many as twenty RAs, and some are small. There are pros and cons to each of these situations. If one lab doesn’t work out because of the people or the research or whatever, you can always try finding another one. (4) You know, I didn’t expect how much I would enjoy being an RA, but it’s really been an eye-opening experience for me. I hope it is for you too if you decide this is what you want to do.

As always, if you have any questions–or even tips of your own, if you’ve been through this–leave a comment! Best of luck!!!

\(^-^)\