If you’re doing a science internship in a lab, you’ll often be working alongside lots of different people - here’s a guide to who some of them might be!
Labs can vary in size from small groups of 5 (or even fewer people) to around 30. The lab I’m interning in has around 20 people. When you’re choosing a lab, it’s a good idea (if you can) to see if you can speak to as many people as possible beforehand to see if the lab is the right fit for you- however, don’t worry if this isn’t possible! I didn’t get to do this, but now I’m here I really make an effort to speak to different people in the lab to find out about their career paths in science and their experiences.
The PI (Principle Investigator)
The PI (principle investigator) will usually be the person interviewing you. They are “in charge” of the lab - they decide what gets researched, and are often responsible for writing grant applications and getting funding. They may be a professor and also have teaching responsibilities at a university. They usually don’t do benchwork (but some do, especially if they have more recently become a PI), because they have a lot of responsibilities and are very busy! I have had a meeting with my PI to talk about how things are going every couple of weeks, and she often walks through the lab to speak to people about how they’re getting on. The PI may have a personal assistant who is responsible for admin like dealing with the HR department and scheduling meetings.
You might be the only intern in your lab, or if it’s a big lab, you might have a few people who are also undergrads or interns. These people will all usually be working on a short project on the timescale of a few months. Masters students in the lab are usually working on a project which lasts a year, however some masters programmes, especially in Europe can last for 2 years, and they can spend time in 2 different labs.
PhD students are often in a lab for a much longer period of time - often for 3-7 years (4 is the norm in the UK). They are working on their own project, and are writing a thesis/dissertation. If they are in the later years of their PhD they may be supervising a bachelors/masters student or a summer intern, which is the case for me when I start my masters project in September.
Postdocs have done their PhD, often in a different lab, and used to be in a semi-related field. They often come to a lab because they have specific skills that are useful, and want to learn some new things too. They are even more independent than PhD students, and mentor PhD students and undergrads/interns/masters students in the lab. Postdocs can be very variable in length, and if you’ve been at the lab as a postdoc for a long time you may become a ‘senior scientist’ at the lab because of your experience, which can be a hybrid between PI and postdoc.
Technicians & Lab Managers
Technicians are so important in the lab! The number in a lab can vary quite a lot - my current lab has around 6. They may be doing this job as a career, or to gain more research experience before doing a masters/PhD. Media prep, assisting with research, or doing their own projects are just some of the roles they might be doing. Their work often means that other people in the lab have more time to focus on experiments. The lab manager is often responsible for ordering the reagents, being responsible for the IT side of things, and generally making sure that the lab is functional.
I hope this brief overview was useful! Munich has been hosting the European Championships for the last couple of weeks, and yesterday I went with a few other interns to see the men’s gymnastics finals, where Team GB won 2 golds and 3 bronze medals! Above is a photo of me with a couple of other interns who I’ve made friends with during my time here :)