Overcoming My Pipette Syndrome – My Internship At VR

About a year ago, I put myself into a poisonous comfort zone. I made peace with the laboratory routine so that I would not entertain the idea of doing something else. I was clearly suffering from the so-called pipette syndrome: considering staying in the lab just because I felt comfortable holding a pipette. Was it maybe time to test something different? Something that doesn’t involve a pipette. How scary can that be?

Well, pretty scary! I got a chance to do an internship at Vetenskapsrådet (VR) or the Swedish Research Council for five weeks. The internship was offered through a graduate course called ”Career Skills for Scientists’’ organized by the KI career service office. It is worth to check the course’s syllabus if you are a last-year PhD student and want to try something different and overcome your pipette syndrome.

Honestly — like many others — I didn’t know much about VR except that it is Sweden’s largest governmental research funding agency. I started to make more sense of VR after reading the internship advertisement and preparing for the internship interview.

Well to give you an idea, VR is influencing policies around research and education. One way VR does that is by collecting data and statistics from all universities in Sweden, upon which policies/legislations will be implemented for improvements. VR also acts as an advisor for the government regarding science-related matters that are of interest to the public.

Furthermore, VR hosts the secretariat of ‘’Joint Program Initiative of Anti-microbial Resistance‘’ (JPIAMR). JPIAMR is an international organization with 27 participating country members. The goal of JPIAMR is to invite different laboratories, from different countries, with different expertise to work together towards solving the alarming global problem of the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). JPIAMR coordinates funding for this purpose through the European Commission and different national funding agencies that dedicate funding directed towards AMR research. JPIAMR therefore announces yearly grant calls that different research groups can jointly apply for. Trust me, this is the simple explanation of it — it took me an entire week to wrap my head around who is doing what!

So where am I in all this? Well, my task as an intern at JPIAMR secretariat at VR was to showcase the progress of the funded research projects since 2014. The reason for this is not to evaluate the productivity of a certain lab but rather highlighting the efforts of the interdisciplinary international labs that are collaborating together to find a solution for antimicrobial resistance. I was also asked to find a way to communicate the major findings of the funded projects in a simple way to the general public who are interested in seeing the outcome of their tax money.

After a couple of panic episodes wondering where to start, I began to read through the approved grant applications of the funded projects and the resulting published work. I used the information to make two summaries, one targeting a broader audience of the general public and the other targeting a more specialized audience of the research community. Afterwards, I reached out to the respective principle investigators (PIs) to ask if they would work with me on the content. I was happy that several PIs were willing to cooperate. After some rounds of discussions and editing, we managed to come up with a successful template that can be used to acquire information regarding any future projects. Needless to say, this progress wouldn’t be possible without the support of the wonderful secretariat team at VR (see the photo above).

One major difference I noticed at VR is the amount of meetings and fika (coffee) breaks that are going on regularly compared to the academic environment that I am familiar with. VR family loves their fika, you would have to arrive in the morning on time to catch the 9 o’clock fika and again at 15:00 — exactly by the time you start recovering from the lunch coma. Since this work style was relatively new to me, I wondered how much I can accomplish within 8 hours a day!

It was intuitive to think that the VR work style wouldn’t be my cup of tea. Especially for a person coming from an environment where it is not unusual to work non-stop for two days in the lab without much interaction with any colleagues. While at VR, work heavily relies on daily communications. So ‘’too many fika breaks’’ turned out to be another way of getting work done.

Fika breaks allow colleagues that don’t interact on a daily basis to meet and talk about both life and work in a relaxed atmosphere. I think bringing up work-related issues around the coffee table away from the office is brilliant. In this way you get prompt opinions from different co-workers at the same time that often lead to diverse and creative output.

Back to my pipette syndrome, at the beginning of the internship I wondered if I have the ‘’right’’ skill set for it or should I have just stayed in the lab to do what I know best (pipetting). Then, I realized how quickly one can adapt to new tasks in the same way one once adapted to the pipette.

The bottom line of my experience is that everything new will seem intimidating, you will doubt your capabilities several times and you will probably consider getting back to whatever you did before and made you feel comfortable. My advice is to just give yourself a chance to overcome whatever syndrome that is holding you back. You will probably surprise yourself!

P.S. For a different impression on working at VR, you might want to check out Ayla De Paepe’s blog called ”Testing the water: my internship at VR”

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