by Akshat Sharma
As a T.A. for an introductory microbiology lab for non-majors (MICR 202L), I have found that music is the best thing that you can bring into lab. I know this since my research has a soundtrack. I enjoy playing music as I run experiments: my cell-culture playlist comprises of a strange yet immensely cohesive mix of dubstep and smooth jazz. It sets a pace for the process and helps induce, what our summer research intern called, my “cell culture trance.”
But, these are not the reasons that I play music at the start and the end of my labs: I understand that I run a particularly unpopular section, one that meets on Fridays in the afternoons, so the music is a buffer of sorts. I play club hits that, at the start of the class, impress upon my students that this is going to be a high-energy lab despite the unfortunate timing. The pounding basses and catchy vocals at the end of the lab seem to hold out a promise of danceable, vespertine pleasures that exemplify the weekend…During lab, of course, we are all business. It gladdens my heart to no end when I see how sophisticatedly said business is handled: indeed, my students are troopers! They work efficiently, they share when asked to, and, most vitally, they laugh at my jokes.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this: my students and I have reached this happy clade of understanding after a bit of a trying trial-and-error period. Running a lab, as I have realized, is like steering a ship that must navigate the treacherous waters of poor practices, presumption and just a lack of knowledge. In a very phenomenological turn of events, I began to realize that my students and I were our perception of each other and the subject at hand. If I launched into a dreamy tirade incorporating microbial trivia very dear to my heart, but not something that I would ever quiz them about, they would look bored, or worried. If I became unwittingly patronizing, they smiled knowingly.
The state of affairs became increasingly more “real” around the time we did the antibiotic resistance experiment wherein the students get to enable Serratia marcescens to mutationally acquire resistance to Streptomycin. It was one of my management students, in fact, who yelled, “Dude! They’re effing growing! They’re not supposed to!” when he saw colonies on a plate of nutrient agar impregnated with antibiotic.
“Yeah, but they’re, like, pink…” his lab partner said questioningly.
“But, they’re growing!” the initial speaker responded.
I pardoned him the expletive, for he’d given me so much more in that he’d finally seen what I had, if somewhat overbearingly, tried to impress upon this class by geeking out constantly. The magic has to happen on its own. And sometimes, with some people, it never happens. And that’s okay too. As Stephen Sondheim in his Into the Woods phrases it,
“Careful the things you say: children will listen.
Guide them, but step away, and children will glisten.
Temper with what is true, and children will turn,
If just to be free.
Careful before you say, “Listen to me,”
Children will listen.”