How to Train Like a Scientist

Before becoming a mom, and a trainer, and a coach, I spent about 10 years working as a research scientist in a variety of labs.  I’ve worked in both the university and commercial setting as well as both medical and environmental labs and with a number of different teachers, mentors, students, and objectives.  The most wonderful thing about working in a lab as a research scientist is that regardless of nationality, we all speak the same language, ie, the scientific method.

Scientists are both perpetual students as well as teachers.  We are always learning about new methods, new research, and entirely new fields of study.  Likewise, we are constantly teaching the steady stream of students and fellow researchers who are coming through our labs as well as anyone who may reach out from other labs who need advice or guidance on their own research.  Generally speaking, scientific research, especially in the university setting, often promotes an atmosphere of collaboration and education that is not often seen in other arenas.

I have found that many of the practices that contribute to success in the lab are extremely useful in other areas of my life, in particular, training and coaching.  And now, I’m going to share them with you.  I can guarantee that if you utilize these practices yourself, you will find yourself far more successful in whatever you apply them to.

1.  Empty your cup and be ready to learn.
Do you know everything?  No.  Making the transition from classroom to lab leaves many new scientists feeling like a fish out of water.  The good news is that if you are there ready to learn, you are surrounded by people ready to teach.  Take the time to listen and learn.  If you don’t know the answer to something, look to the literature or a colleague.  There are always better ways to do things and a lot of that knowledge comes from experience.  And in the lab, you are surrounded by decades more experience than you have.

2.  Keep a detailed lab notebook.
If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never know where you are going.  In the lab, a notebook is a gold mine.  You write down all of your experiments in great detail.  What time did you start the experiment?  What was the temperature of the room?  What chemicals and in what volumes did you use?  How long did you let your reaction run?  How did you measure the results?  The generally accepted rule about lab notebooks is that it should be detailed enough that if you disappeared, someone should be able to come in and replicate your work simply by reading what you have written down.  Another benefit of a lab notebook is that you can review what you have done in the past year(s) and determine what successes you have had and whether or not you need to change directions or keep forging ahead.  Time distorts memory and being able to see your thoughts written down at the actual time you were having them is much more informative than trying to remember your methods and motivation. 

3.  Optimization requires consistency with small changes.
Nothing in the lab is random.  A large part of what we do when trying to answer a question is figuring out the best way to measure or observe the answer.  It starts with designing our experiment based on the current research and what we already know.  And then we spend days, weeks, sometimes even months, optimizing the reactions or processes that we are using to obtain our data.  If every time our experiment didn’t work we just scrapped it and started with something completely new, we’d never get anywhere.  We have to think and reflect on what small changes we can make that will have a slightly different effect and make our experiment more precise.

4.  There is no black box
The black box is a term used to explain a process which is known to work, but the mechanism of how it works is not understood.  The truth is, that despite it being mysterious to some, there are scientific principles at work that govern the results and you should always strive to understand those principles.  Simply accepting a process without understanding how it works is not good science.  What is not understood cannot be improved, optimized, streamlined, or replicated. 

Cartoon by Sidney Harris

So, in a nutshell, be a perpetual student, keep a detailed training log, avoid random workouts or changes to your program, and if someone can’t explain to you exactly why they are doing something, then they don’t really know what they are doing and you need to find someone who does.  If you are truly looking to make physical progress, you need to understand not only what you are doing, but why you are doing it, and how to optimize those processes specifically for your body and mind.  Its not easy, but it is relatively simple and if you are willing to commit to the process, there are few limits to what you can accomplish.

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