Doing research at Imperial College

I apologise for the hiatus. Somehow I have been really busy with many different things and I have not found the time to write in here. I will write about my travel adventures soon; there are so many stories that I want to remember. But for now, I want to write something about my experience of doing research in London.

To be honest, I did not really experience too much culture shock when I first came to London in September and thus I was surprised to find myself experiencing a rather big culture shock in the second term. At some point, I was quite confused and deluded because I could not believe that I was experiencing a culture shock a good 4 months after I came to London. Looking back, I understand why the culture shock kicked in so late. In the first term, I was surrounded by international students and I am fairly familiar with that kind of setting. In the second term, I started work in a lab that is largely dominated by English people and I had a pretty difficult time trying to fit in.

There are numerous cultural differences that I had to grapple with, for instance how people in the same group do not even attempt to eat together during lunch breaks. In Singapore, we behave in a more collective manner and we wait for one another (sometimes the wait can get too long) to go for lunch together. What is also really different for me is the way English people have conversations with one another. My problem with having conversations with English people is that I do not know when exactly I should start talking. Instead of actively engaging one another in a conversation, I find that English people in general (at least those in my lab) just go on and on about their own lives. Perhaps they are too polite to directly ask people questions about their lives and they are too afraid of the awkward silence that might descend upon the group if they stop talking. Cultural differences aside, there are numerous differences between the research environment here as compared to the two labs that I have worked in Singapore. I am not sure how generalized my observations are but this is what I see from my perspective:

1) Purpose of research

I am not sure how generalized this is but this is just a general sense that I get from the labs that I worked/ am working in. I feel that the lab groups in Singapore are more goal-oriented (i.e. paper-driven) while the lab groups here are more exploratory in nature. What I mean by exploratory is that people in general seem to want to try things because they are curious about a phenomenon and they want to understand and elucidate more about it. In Singapore, I get the sense that people work with the objective of the end-target (paper published) in mind. For instance, when people talk about their projects, in Singapore, the emphasis is that “no one has done it before and hence we are the first to do this” while in London, the emphasis is that “this drug target is very important in treating a very deadly disease”.

2) Faith in results

This is something that I took a really long time to get used to. In Singapore, when you do an experiment for the first time and your results differ from what has been published in the literature, you and the people in the lab tend to think that it is most likely your fault for not being able to reproduce the results in the literature. Could it be that you didn’t seed the cells carefully? Could it be that you didn’t check the pH of your solution? Furthermore, the supervisors seem to have really little faith in the first set of data that you have obtained. Results tend to be trusted and analyzed when they have been replicated. On the other hand, in London, my supervisors tend to analyze and make sense of the first sets of data that I obtained for my experiments. It is a really strange feeling that my supervisor trusts my data more than I do…

3) Professor-student relationship

In NUS, the professor is the boss in the lab – he dictates how resources are distributed, he keeps a watchful eye on his research students and he has the power to make you do some things that are not part of your research project. As research students, we try to keep him happy by obeying his commands (however unreasonable it might be) and reporting our progress periodically to him. Here in Imperial College, the professor is more like a teacher as compared to a boss. Research students consult their supervisors instead of reporting to them. I find it really strange at the start when I see my peers asking my supervisor, “Do you have any idea why my results are like this? Do you have experience working with these particles using complete RPMI?” In NUS, at least in the two labs that I have worked in, no one dares to ask his/ her supervisor such questions. As a research student, you are expected to figure out these things on your own. But over here, people are open to this kind of discussions and this is a fairly novel experience for me.

4) Sharing of resources

This is one thing that really irritated me at the start. In NUS, the research environment seems to be at a rather unstable harmonious state. People in the lab are friendly towards one another and help one another but they are very possessive about their own resources, e.g. buffer solutions, media bottles and round bottomed flasks. There is an unspoken rule that as long as the lab material has someone’s initials on it, it belongs to that person and no one else is supposed to touch it without seeking the permission of the “owner”. People do get really irritated when other people use their things without informing them. The idea is that people only use things that they trust for their experiments and essentially you only have yourself to blame if something goes wrong with your experiments. This way the seniors in the lab are shielded from the potential mistakes made by the rookies in the lab. In Imperial College, or at least the lab that I worked in, even if you write your name on it, people will just use your things without telling you. The idea is that the lab materials belong to everyone and no one has the exclusive right to any of the materials even if the materials took you a pretty long time to prepare. At the start, I was really perplexed by the fact that things with my initials on it just mysteriously disappeared from time to time.

5) Freedom and accountability.

I think this is definitely something that I took a very long time to get used to. As research students, we are pretty much free to do whatever we want with our time. I have seen a student who spent really long hours in the lab everyday to generate data and on the other end of the spectrum, I have heard about another student who just disappeared off the radar for some time. The general attitude is this: this is your project, if you don’t want to do anything about it, no one can do anything to you. You are primarily accountable for yourself. I think this mindset is quite great in some sense because it is only right that you do things because you are self-motivated and you want to do it and not because you are afraid that your supervisor might nag at or reprimand you. In Singapore, more often than not, research students, especially the undergraduates, work hard because they want to please their supervisors. Another good thing about this mindset is that people understand that everyone has the freedom to do whatever they want with their time and thus they are less judgmental as compared to people in Singapore.


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