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Prepare your Mind. Prepare your Space.

Science is not about “right” and “wrong” nor does it require access to a lab space

Establish Your Research Mindset

National surveys tell us that when most of us think of science, we typically think about the  “utility” or “product” as an outcome of science, and how this can directly apply to our lives. While applied science has a clear impact on society, it a focus on product often overshadows the enormous levels of creativity, ideation, innovation, and collaboration that can be observed and experienced during the process of science. In my opinion — and I admit that I am clearly biased! — to equate science only with its products is a missed opportunity. The process is so much more exciting. It can be messy and and hard and fulfilling and motivating. The process of science is connected not only to the creation of knowledge, but also to our emotions and our diverse perspectives as people.

Here, I invite you to dive into the excitement inherent to the process, as opposed to a focus on the process. Flip this script! Don’t worry about the destination, but instead just enjoy the ride.

Easier said than done. I get that, too.

In my experience, one of the most common roadblocks I observe when learners first start off on a scientific research journey is the fear of not finding the “right” answer. Firstly, let’s ask ourselves: What is “right,” anyway? To be clear, science is not about “right” and “wrong;” instead, science is about observations, asking questions, figuring out how to answer those questions, interpreting what happened, trying again (and again), and then being game to change everything if new knowledge challenges our existing understanding. But, admittedly, getting comfortable with the simultaneously reliable and tentative nature of science may feel challenging.

Let’s instead focus on bravery and brazenness, and leave our comfort zones. How do we get comfortable with taking risks in the name of scientific discovery? How can we promote science as an accessible endeavor that embraces creativity and failure and individuality and collaboration? How can we showcase that what it means to “do” science is as diverse as the people driving the production of scientific knowledge? To do this means, in part, letting go of what the traditional metrics of success are (grades, standardized tests, etc.), and being open to new ways to consider progress and learning. 

As you move through this work, give yourself permission to be brazen. Try stuff out. Challenge yourself to see things from multiple vantage points. Take risks. FEEL what research is really like!

Set up a DIY Sterile Workspace

Doing safe and efficacious microbial research in your home or school is entirely possible, although it is unlikely that you have access to equipment and spaces designed for maintaining a controlled research environment. But that is ok! The first rule of thumb when setting up a DIY sterile workspace is to know your limitations. For example, do you cohabit with young roommates or pets who like to get into whatever it is they are not supposed to be getting into? Do you have access to a flat surface that can be cleaned with a disinfectant? Can you work in an area with low, if any, thru-traffic (meaning, members of your home are not regularly moving around your workspace)? 

General advice for setting up a sterile workspace is as follows:

  • Choose a space that you can leave unattended without significant risk of being touched/handled by others in your home
    • [Note from Jeanne] In my home, I make dedicated research space on a credenza-type dresser, but because the dresser is wood, I have to be careful about the cleaning products used. So, while the dresser serves as my flat surface, I put all of my research material on a lunch tray (available from Amazon), which can better stand up to cleaners and disinfectants. 
  • Be sure to prepare the space so that it is free of clutter, and all required research supplies are in reach
    • [Note from Jeanne] I keep my home research area organized by using a shoe organizer as a table-top shelf system (something like this, for example). There is no need to buy stuff — just see if you can repurpose what you already have! This approach also helps to uphold sustainability practices in your work.
  • Choose a household cleaner that has disinfecting capacity, and is suitable for your designated research surface/area (#respectwood). Some things I have used include Clorox or Lysol brand products, 5% bleach solution(v/v, 5mL bleach plus 95mL of water), or a 1:1 solution of water and white vinegar. Every time you work in your space you should spray or wipe down the work surface, being sure that and possible debris and dirt is removed
  • Be sure to sterilize your equipment, such as glass jars, utensils, and other reusable consumables. Time your sterilization efforts to be close to when you are doing your experiments (same day, if possible). Consider your available options for sterilizing relevant materials and equipment (choose your favorite):
    • Dishwasher — be sure to engage the “sterilize” function
    • Bleach Dip — prepare a large bowl or soup pot with a 5% bleach solution (scale the following ratio to the volume you wish to make: 5mL bleach + 95mL of water). Wash your glassware /equipment with warm, soapy water, being sure to rinse all the soap off the surfaces. Dunk the glass/equipment in the bleach solution, fully submerging all surfaces for 3-5 seconds. Allow the glassware/equipment to air dry on a clean towel.
    • White Vinegar Spray — fill a spray bottle with 1:1 water:white vinegar. Spray the surfaces of your glass/equipment, and allow it to dry.
    • Stovetop boil — kick it old school by adding your equipment to a large soup pot that is full of water. Put on your stove’s burner, and allow it to boil for 1-3 minutes. Remove from heat, and allow to cool. You can also CAREFULLY use tongs to pull your HOT materials from the pot, if you really need it sooner than later. 
  • Prepare yourself! Make sure you have clean hands, and wash up several times as you move through the research experience. If you have long hair, tie it back. Try not to breathe heavily when working with your microbes (hey, maybe our masks can have a second life?). BUT contamination is common, so don’t fret if you start growing fuzzy things that don’t belong on your plate. Just clean up, and try again!
  • Be practical. We are researching stuff in our environment while existing in our environment. Stuff will happen that is out of our control, and setting the expectation that you will just roll with it (well, as much as possible), will make this process feel easier!
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