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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Column: Back to the bottom

This weekend was, as I paged through Aggie Job Link looking for internships I might be interested in, when I started feeling wistful about working as the science editor and columnist.

I’m currently on the hunt for internship positions at labs doing research in microbiology. Right now I’m still on the first step of sifting through a bunch of different listings and finding some that I qualify for.

My experience, once I find a lab, will be analogous to what I did here at The California Aggie. First, I was an unpaid science writer for a year. My stories were assigned by my editor — though she did welcome story proposals when I had my own ideas.

Likewise, when people start out in labs, they are usually unpaid interns, doing small jobs for the main researchers (usually graduate students or professors). This can take the form of manual labor, like washing and sterilizing dishes, to help with some aspects of the research, like putting samples into the machinery.

There are probably labs that are exceptions to this who may want interns for other reasons. For the most part, though, this seems to be the pattern. It may seem a bit dull when your job at a lab is to wash dishes, but it’s necessary for work to continue.

After a while, once a person has proven that they can wash dishes without breaking each one and can put samples where they need to go, it’s hopefully time to move up.

When working at The California Aggie, after writing for a year, I was able to apply to be an editor myself. After going through the application process and being hired, it was time to take on some new responsibilities while the previous science editor watched and helped. Toward the end of last year, I was editing the other writers’ stories while the previous editor gave me tips and answered my questions.

Similarly, after doing the basic jobs for a while, labs start giving more and more autonomy. They allow the intern to help the person leading the research more directly, giving co-author credit to the intern after the researchers write the paper on the results of their experiments.

It can seem like a lot of hoops to jump through unless you look at the bigger picture. The goal here is to get enough experience that those in charge of the lab trust you to do your own experiments by yourself.

That is what I’m excited for. The best thing about this job, as science editor, was in how much I learned about research, about science and a little bit more about how the world works. Writers strive to connect stories to real-world applications, but I always find basic research fascinating on its own.

At this point in time, I’m probably much more of an idealist about research than I may be after a few months of working. I may find bureaucratic problems to complain about, other interns who irritate me, certain repetitive tasks that I grow to dread. That’s just a part of life; even the best job in the world would have these problems.

However, I consider myself fortunate that being an undergraduate hasn’t stopped my love of learning about how the world works. I still have one more year to go, but so far that pattern doesn’t look to be changing.

When I first started as science editor, I felt as though I was messing everything up. It took me several weeks to become confident in how I did. I fully expect that when I start an internship, I’ll have the same feelings. Starting from the bottom of a new field, with new tasks to perform, such feelings are normal.

The fact that I’ll be doing all of this at the same time as a paying job, however, will definitely be interesting.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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