aldol16's Guide for Summer Research Etiquette

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aldol16

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Hello all,

As the summer research internship season kicks off (if it hasn't already at your institutions), I thought I would spend some time giving some pointers on basic etiquette for students, focusing on some of the more frequent questions I've encountered on here from past years' programs. I hope it'll answer some of the most commonly asked questions about these experiences as well as cover basic etiquette. I probably won't cover every little thing but I'll add to it as I think of it. Since I'm in the basic sciences, this will mainly be pertinent to REUs, etc. in the basic sciences, as I don't have much experience with clinical research.

Dress Code: You can't go wrong with business casual. Don't be that guy who shows up in a suit but also don't be the guy who comes in a tank-top and shorts. Look put together and professional. First impressions matter. After that first day, you can adjust your clothing style according to what is the norm in your lab, unless you are told specifically to dress a certain way. Depending on the lab culture, you might be showing up in a nice t-shirt and nice jeans or you might have to wear business casual every day. But some staples are closed-toe shoes and long pants (some of you might work in labs that don't deal with dangerous chemicals and so the requirements might be more lax - but it's always better safe than sorry!) and hair ties for women. You don't want whatever you're working with getting on those toes or in your hair. If you're working with dangerous chemicals, always ask for and wear a lab coat. Each institution has some sort of department that deals with lab safety and it is universally recommended that lab coats be worn because you don't want to contaminate your clothing and go home with it all dirty.

Safety: You should also take note of where to dispose of hazardous waste and what areas are "clean" and what areas aren't. For example, you shouldn't be wearing gloves into an office area where people eat. You also shouldn't carry hazardous materials in there. You should generally leave your lab coat in the lab and not wear it around in "clean" areas (I know, it gets all the ladies, but it's a necessary sacrifice). As another example, you shouldn't be dumping organic chemicals down the sink. Each lab has safety protocols - take note of them and follow them. Safety is always the most important in a lab.

The most important safety tip is probably this: if you don't know something, don't be afraid to ask. We'd much rather you ask us where to put something than you dump something where it's not supposed to go and cause an explosion. Or mess up a multi-million dollar machine. Because if you accidentally break a machine that you didn't know how to use, now that machine has to be taken down for repairs and it's out of service for everybody in the lab.

Expectations: For the first few days/week(s), you'll be expected to learn the lab techniques. Most likely, you will be paired with a graduate student or post-doc mentor who will show you the ropes. You might be shown how to do a technique and then asked to reproduce a former result from the lab using that technique. This is just to show your mentor that you are able to carry out the procedure safely and effectively. I know some things might seem dull and repetitive - especially if you've worked in similar labs before - but we would much rather spend some time going over things you already know than set you loose in the lab unprepared and have to deal with a major accident later on. We really do care for your safety (if only because you're our responsibility if anything happens :p). I know some of you are rarin' to go, but just remember, you have to learn to walk before you can run.

You'll also be expected to start learning about what kind of research the lab does and the context/background of that research. The best way to learn about it would be to read the recent literature published from that lab, as well as the seminal works in the field that the lab is in. The recent papers from the lab will reference those seminal works frequently or point you to review articles where the current state of the field is nicely summarized for you with nice schemes and diagrams. Oftentimes, you'll be asked to read these papers in your own time - they're really for your own benefit. You get as much out of the experience as you put in. In fact, you can start reading even before you get to your first day and impress your future mentors with your knowledge of their work!

Publications/Posters/Presentations: Now, I know this one is what you guys are most interested in. Some of my colleagues on here might have differing opinions on this, but mine is that you do not walk into a lab on the first day, knowing nothing or next to nothing about the field, and expect to be published in the three months you are there. Even a seasoned expert in the field will have difficulty cranking out a paper in three months. Maybe this happens frequently in more clinical fields or data-driven fields where the data is already collected or very easy to collect, but this doesn't happen in my field nor in the closely allied fields. A project from start to finish can take anywhere between 6-9 months to years. The more impactful projects will usually take longer because they're harder to design, require difficult-to-create models, and/or go through a lengthy review process to make sure every aspect is scientifically valid and sound. Before a project even takes off, there has to be a lot of preliminary work done to make sure it's worth the time and resource investment and a lot of reading the literature to see if the basis for the project is really there.

The way I see it, you're there to learn how research is conducted in a professional setting. That should be your expectation - that when you leave, you'll understand how a lab in that field operates and you'll know how to perform many of the lab techniques used in that field. You'll likely also know how to put together a poster presentation for an undergraduate symposium held at the culmination of the program. So in short, you'll learn how scientists design hypotheses, set up experiments, collect data, analyze data, and present that data to other scientists.

Now, in order to make your projects achievable within the very short time you are there, we usually give you small parts of our own projects or small independent projects. These might eventually make it onto a publication or presentation and if they do, you deserve credit for it. But understand that you're not coming out of this with a first-author publication unless you're extremely lucky. Usually, that only happens when the undergraduate comes on at a time when the project is mainly done but there are several follow-up experiments to be done and the undergrad gets those projects. Then he or she is added onto the author list.

In sum, I'm not saying that you can't be published at the end of a summer - I'm saying that it's unlikely and that you should not come in with those expectations - and certainly not demand it (I've seen everything).

Attitude: This one should go without saying, but I've seen too many examples of bad behavior that I have to mention it. I get it, most of you are pre-meds. Your goal is medical school, not graduate school. It doesn't matter if you can perform an in-depth IR analysis of a complex inorganic molybdenum complex - you'll never need to use it again. But remember - you're there to learn science, not medicine. We are welcoming you into our labs to get a glimpse into what scientific research is all about. You applied for this and likely wrote an essay about why you are interested in research. In most cases, you're being paid to be there. The least you could do is pretend to be engaged in the material. I've seen people leaving and going home when their experiment doesn't work without trying to figure out what's wrong. I've seen people demand to be put on different projects because they think theirs is too trivial. The worst insult you could give your mentor is not giving a damn about your project because whether it works or not doesn't really affect your future - you're there for three months and then you're out. But it matters to us. We designed the experiments and we want them to work because that's our job.

This shouldn't be misconstrued to mean that you should be grateful just to be there. No, as mentors, we also owe you a responsibility to teach you how to conduct scientific research in a safe and effective manner. It's a two-way street and all I'm asking is for you to hold up your end.

Hours: It's true that working hours can vary a lot between labs. In some labs like mine, you can design experiments around your schedule and leave at a reasonable time. In other labs, you might have to come in on a weekend to maintain your cells. It varies and there is a thin line between being reasonable and being excessive. By reasonable, I mean you might have to put in a little extra work so that your experiments work out. Maybe work an hour or two late a couple of nights. By excessive, I mean you're at the point where your mentor has pawned off his or her cell cultures onto you to maintain and skipped town. The former is just how research works whereas the latter is borderline abuse. Learn to recognize the difference.

In terms of a daily schedule, it also varies by lab. Take your cue from other lab members. Some labs might mainly operate from 10am to 7pm. Other labs might work from 8am to 5pm. Still others might work around the clock, with various lab members working at different times. It depends and your best resource for this is your mentor. Ask him or her what times you should be in by. Most likely, you'll get there around the time he or she gets there so you can maximize your time. Just don't be that guy who shows up at noon and leaves at 5pm. It also goes without saying that requesting you to come in at midnight and leave at 8am is also unreasonable.


Well, that's about all I can think of for now but I'll add more when I think of them. Hope this helps! As always feel free to post below or PM me with additional comments or questions.

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will you be continuing your research in addition to medical school? Or did you apply MD/PhD?
 
will you be continuing your research in addition to medical school? Or did you apply MD/PhD?

My research focus will be shifting more to the biomedical sciences but I feel well prepared to take it on. I'll be learning a bunch of new techniques too!
 
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Do you have any advice from the other end? I'm getting an undergrad for the summer to teach but I've never met them before etc. and although I've been in this lab full time for a year I've never really had to teach anyone
 
Do you have any advice from the other end? I'm getting an undergrad for the summer to teach but I've never met them before etc. and although I've been in this lab full time for a year I've never really had to teach anyone

The most difficult part is probably coming up with a project. Since you're a relatively recent member of the lab, the undergrad might already be given a project by the PI. Otherwise, you'll have to let him/her test out one of your ideas or give him/her a small, manageable part of your project. But the most important thing at the beginning is to train him/her well to do science. So assign papers to read from your field - the most important ones. When showing him/her lab techniques, you show them how to do it. Then you watch them do it to make sure that they're doing it correctly and safely. Once they clear this hurdle, you can be confident that they can handle themselves independently with that instrument. Your role isn't to coddle them, but you should make sure that they are being safe, first and foremost.

In terms of projects, you'll likely have to teach them how to present data effectively as well, whether that's in the context of within-group meetings or poster presentations at the end of the summer. You've probably gone through that process before, so you understand the process involved.
 
@aldol16 excellent advice! I'd like to add something if I may:

Professionalism in the Lab: While your graduate student, Post-Doc, or PI may walk around with earphones in and their phone out and occasionally stop working to send/answer a text, or hell, even take a Snapchat, you are not allowed to do that. I worked in my UG lab for 5.5 years now (started in undergrad, continued/continuing through Masters), and nothing is more unprofessional, disrespectful, or rude than having your phone out or taking a f*cking selfie with your lab apparatus for your Instagram. DO NOT DO THIS. You're in the lab to learn science, not medicine, not anything else. Another issue I see with undergrads that I rarely if ever did is language issues. The lab is not a jungle where you can drop curses or make lewd comments. I don't care if your PI says something messed up like "Women suck at science" that doesn't allow you to chime in with "Yea they should just be at home!!" Its 110% inappropriate and I, personally, would fire an undergrad on the spot for that kind of stuff. As far as profanity goes, it will be very frustrating while learning techniques, but don't curse. If you have to let out some stress, just sigh (quietly). Don't curse or, possibly worse, hit the machine. The equipment could cost $0.01 or $1,000,000, I don't care, but its not yours to destroy. Did you pay for it? No. If you're the type of kid that smashed the video game controller when losing in Smash Bros, don't be the guy in lab smashing the pipette. Last key point: friendliness and professionalism - most graduate students are laid back, but you're not allowed to be. Don't be super strict, stand around with perfect posture, and speaking with eloquent language - that's just weird. But if your grad student curses or chews gum or something, you're not allowed to.
 
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Thank you all for the great advice!
 
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@aldol16 excellent advice! I'd like to add something if I may:

Professionalism in the Lab: While your graduate student, Post-Doc, or PI may walk around with earphones in and their phone out and occasionally stop working to send/answer a text, or hell, even take a Snapchat, you are not allowed to do that. I worked in my UG lab for 5.5 years now (started in undergrad, continued/continuing through Masters), and nothing is more unprofessional, disrespectful, or rude than having your phone out or taking a f*cking selfie with your lab apparatus for your Instagram. DO NOT DO THIS. You're in the lab to learn science, not medicine, not anything else. Another issue I see with undergrads that I rarely if ever did is language issues. The lab is not a jungle where you can drop curses or make lewd comments. I don't care if your PI says something messed up like "Women suck at science" that doesn't allow you to chime in with "Yea they should just be at home!!" Its 110% inappropriate and I, personally, would fire an undergrad on the spot for that kind of stuff. As far as profanity goes, it will be very frustrating while learning techniques, but don't curse. If you have to let out some stress, just sigh (quietly). Don't curse or, possibly worse, hit the machine. The equipment could cost $0.01 or $1,000,000, I don't care, but its not yours to destroy. Did you pay for it? No. If you're the type of kid that smashed the video game controller when losing in Smash Bros, don't be the guy in lab smashing the pipette. Last key point: friendliness and professionalism - most graduate students are laid back, but you're not allowed to be. Don't be super strict, stand around with perfect posture, and speaking with eloquent language - that's just weird. But if your grad student curses or chews gum or something, you're not allowed to.

I will say that this varies with lab culture.

In the labs I've been in and mentored undergrads in (as well as our friendly neighbors), the PIs usually didn't care if you were on your phone so long as you were a valuable team member (not making mistakes, getting work done, generally enthusiastic, etc). Definitely a no to the obnoxious selfie with says more about your personality than your work ethic. My mentors and I as a mentor didn't mind if our undergrads cursed within reason. Don't curse every other sentence, but once in a while it was fine with us. If you make a mistake, it was okay to curse, but don't boil over and start destroying things or be a mean person.

I personally wouldn't like a lab where undergrads aren't allowed to be at least somewhat laid back. If you're screwing up, not meeting expectations, being late or whatnot, then definitely don't be laid back. If you're contributing to a project and are generally productive, it's okay to be let loose a little bit. As a mentor, I would be worried that I was pushing my students too hard if they were serious 100% of the time.

For me, bottom line: read the situation appropriately and ask. Start out serious and 100% focused. After awhile, if the lab culture is easy-going, then ask your supervisor if you can listen to music, step out to answer texts or phone calls, or other boundaries.
 
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My tip to students would be to read read read!! You can never read too much as a novice, whether it be about the research background or how a particular assay works. Just read!

This is the #1 thing I look for. Even if you aren't great technically starting out, things will improve with time. I can't teach somebody who doesn't have self-initiative. I simply don't have the time or the motivation. You get what you put in.
 
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In the labs I've been in and mentored undergrads in (as well as our friendly neighbors), the PIs usually didn't care if you were on your phone so long as you were a valuable team member (not making mistakes, getting work done, generally enthusiastic, etc). Definitely a no to the obnoxious selfie with says more about your personality than your work ethic. My mentors and I as a mentor didn't mind if our undergrads cursed within reason. Don't curse every other sentence, but once in a while it was fine with us. If you make a mistake, it was okay to curse, but don't boil over and start destroying things or be a mean person.

In no situation is cursing condoned in a professional situation. It is not only unprofessional but speaks to your character. Remember, these are the people who are writing your recommendation letters and will be doing that based on their impression of you. They can curse because they don't need anything from you. We don't care if you think we're the worst people in the world - we won't ever need you to speak about our character. But you do. This asymmetry is important. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn't suddenly make it permissible for you.
 
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In no situation is cursing condoned in a professional situation. It is not only unprofessional but speaks to your character. Remember, these are the people who are writing your recommendation letters and will be doing that based on their impression of you. They can curse because they don't need anything from you. We don't care if you think we're the worst people in the world - we won't ever need you to speak about our character. But you do. This asymmetry is important. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn't suddenly make it permissible for you.

Our experiences have been markedly different then. It's not in my nature to use profanity, but the lab cultures that you describe are definitely on the stricter end of things at my institution.

Of course cursing is not professional, but if you do by accident, I don't think it's that big of a deal as this thread makes it out to be. But of course, depends on your PI/supervisor.

Since this is a summer research thread, all students should be on their best behavior at all times. If we're talking about an undergrad who has been in a lab for a year, then my advice would depend on the lab s/he's in.
 
I will say that this varies with lab culture.

In the labs I've been in and mentored undergrads in (as well as our friendly neighbors), the PIs usually didn't care if you were on your phone so long as you were a valuable team member (not making mistakes, getting work done, generally enthusiastic, etc). Definitely a no to the obnoxious selfie with says more about your personality than your work ethic. My mentors and I as a mentor didn't mind if our undergrads cursed within reason. Don't curse every other sentence, but once in a while it was fine with us. If you make a mistake, it was okay to curse, but don't boil over and start destroying things or be a mean person.

I personally wouldn't like a lab where undergrads aren't allowed to be at least somewhat laid back. If you're screwing up, not meeting expectations, being late or whatnot, then definitely don't be laid back. If you're contributing to a project and are generally productive, it's okay to be let loose a little bit. As a mentor, I would be worried that I was pushing my students too hard if they were serious 100% of the time.

For me, bottom line: read the situation appropriately and ask. Start out serious and 100% focused. After awhile, if the lab culture is easy-going, then ask your supervisor if you can listen to music, step out to answer texts or phone calls, or other boundaries.
Exactly. I meant in the beginning stages of lab (i.e. first day through the first month/few months) the undergrads shouldn't have their phones out or listen to music. Not until he/she gets a firm grasp on things in lab and then can chill a little bit.
 
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Our experiences have been markedly different then. It's not in my nature to use profanity, but the lab cultures that you describe are definitely on the stricter end of things at my institution.

Of course cursing is not professional, but if you do by accident, I don't think it's that big of a deal as this thread makes it out to be. But of course, depends on your PI/supervisor.

Since this is a summer research thread, all students should be on their best behavior at all times. If we're talking about an undergrad who has been in a lab for a year, then my advice would depend on the lab s/he's in.

This, as you acknowledge, is a summer research thread and so whatever your relationship with your mentor might become after a year or more on the job doesn't apply. However, profanity still makes for a bad impression. I don't think that's being strict - I think that's being professional. In no professional setting are you allowed to curse - in any profession I can think of. Perhaps maybe being a bouncer. When an undergrad asks for a letter of recommendation, I write them based on my impression of the undergraduate because that's what a letter of recommendation is. Now, I don't say, "This undergrad said '****' three times over the last year." But your overall behavior does have an impact on my overall evaluation of you - and we evaluate you now only for academic ability, devotion, and scientific prowess, but also for character and professionalism.
 
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This, as you acknowledge, is a summer research thread and so whatever your relationship with your mentor might become after a year or more on the job doesn't apply. However, profanity still makes for a bad impression. I don't think that's being strict - I think that's being professional. In no professional setting are you allowed to curse - in any profession I can think of. Perhaps maybe being a bouncer. When an undergrad asks for a letter of recommendation, I write them based on my impression of the undergraduate because that's what a letter of recommendation is. Now, I don't say, "This undergrad said '****' three times over the last year." But your overall behavior does have an impact on my overall evaluation of you - and we evaluate you now only for academic ability, devotion, and scientific prowess, but also for character and professionalism.

I suggest you do a little research before you make such overarching statements. Outside of the sterile environment of science, there are many, many colorful and creative wordsmiths. I know a handleful of lawyers/businessmen that would put Eminem to shame.
 
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My advice, from personal experience (and I've heard a few other people say that they did this too) , is to not burn bridges. Once I finished my senior thesis, I completely stopped showing up to lab meetings. I spent the next 6 months avoiding my PI and the grad students from the lab because I felt so guilty for bailing once I got what I needed out of the lab. Luckily that research is completely unrelated to medicine so it probably won't come back to haunt me. But if that had been a medical lab, doing that potentially could have had significant negative consequences for my career. People talk. Plus, what I did was super rude and disrespectful. Kind of embarrassed that I did that. So, don't be like me.
 
I suggest you do a little research before you make such overarching statements. Outside of the sterile environment of science, there are many, many colorful and creative wordsmiths. I know a handleful of lawyers/businessmen that would put Eminem to shame.

Not sure what a handleful is, but you claim to know lawyers who curse in a professional setting? Show me a lawyer who curses in front of a judge where the judge doesn't hold him or her in contempt and I'll show you a lie. Similarly, you honestly think that businessmen curse during their meetings with each other and with their bosses? Get a grip on reality.
 
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Not sure what a handleful is, but you claim to know lawyers who curse in a professional setting? Show me a lawyer who curses in front of a judge where the judge doesn't hold him or her in contempt and I'll show you a lie. Similarly, you honestly think that businessmen curse during their meetings with each other and with their bosses? Get a grip on reality.

I liken doing research in a lab with coworkers as working closely with coworkers in an office, not in front of a judge or their boss. You're drawing incompatible comparisons to prove your point. As for my grip on reality, I'd say I'm in a pretty good place as I'm not the one telling someone on an internet forum to "get a grip on reality" when they are providing an honest statement on their past experiences. Also, sorry for the rushed typing on "handleful", next time I'll be more careful for people who can't make the mental jump between "handleful" and "handful" in context.
 
I liken doing research in a lab with coworkers as working closely with coworkers in an office, not in front of a judge or their boss. You're drawing incompatible comparisons to prove your point. As for my grip on reality, I'd say I'm in a pretty good place as I'm not the one telling someone on an internet forum to "get a grip on reality" when they are providing an honest statement on their past experiences. Also, sorry for the rushed typing on "handleful", next time I'll be more careful for people who can't make the mental jump between "handleful" and "handful" in context.

Thanks, boo :) I need a little help making leaps because I'm actually quite dull. As a summer undergraduate in a lab, you are not on the same level as graduate students or post-docs in the lab. We're in positions of authority because we directly supervise your work and are responsible for training you. We're also the ones who end up writing your letters. That's called a power differential and places us in a position of authority over you whether we want to be there or not. Stop telling me what "doing research in a lab" is like when that hasn't actually been your career. In the lab, your "coworkers" are fellow undergraduates or fellow REU students. You can curse around them all you want. As long as I don't hear it and the lab continues to be a professional environment for everyone else.
 
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Thanks, boo :) I need a little help making leaps because I'm actually quite dull. As a summer undergraduate in a lab, you are not on the same level as graduate students or post-docs in the lab. We're in positions of authority because we directly supervise your work and are responsible for training you. We're also the ones who end up writing your letters. That's called a power differential and places us in a position of authority over you whether we want to be there or not. Stop telling me what "doing research in a lab" is like when that hasn't actually been your career. In the lab, your "coworkers" are fellow undergraduates or fellow REU students. You can curse around them all you want. As long as I don't hear it and the lab continues to be a professional environment for everyone else.

I suppose I've just had a much different lab dynamic/experience than you. You're right, I have not worked my entire career in a lab. I have only been in a few over a couple of years, all with a lax attitude torwards swearing, and I have received phenomenal letters despite the environment I participated in.
If I'm in the minority on that, so be it, and people should work torwards your example of professionalism to prepare for the majority.
 
I suppose I've just had a much different lab dynamic/experience than you. You're right, I have not worked my entire career in a lab. I have only been in a few over a couple of years, all with a lax attitude torwards swearing, and I have received phenomenal letters despite the environment I participated in.
If I'm in the minority on that, so be it, and people should work towards your example of professionalism to prepare for the majority.
I think what @aldol16 and I were saying in our above post is while profanity and vulgarity may exist in the research lab environment, its entirely inappropriate for undergraduates or summer interns to use that kind of language. I don't care how great the student is, if he or she is dropping f-bombs everywhere that certainly won't garner them a good reputation and, at the end of the day, the student needs the lab experience and letter of rec. The PI doesn't need **** from the student lol.

If you find profanity so accepting, I'd suggest you start your own guide for summer research etiquette and make point number one to be as vulgar as possible.

/discussion
 
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I suppose I've just had a much different lab dynamic/experience than you. You're right, I have not worked my entire career in a lab. I have only been in a few over a couple of years, all with a lax attitude torwards swearing, and I have received phenomenal letters despite the environment I participated in.
If I'm in the minority on that, so be it, and people should work torwards your example of professionalism to prepare for the majority.
It really comes down to a very simple solution, don't swear in lab. You will never offend co-workers by not cussing, but you may offend some by cussing-this is true of EVERY field, whether its plumbing or law.

I don't really care if 49/50 labs are tolerant of swearing, it only takes one lab to have a negative impression of their undergrad and write an ultimately lackluster LOR.
 
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I think what @aldol16 and I were saying in our above post is while profanity and vulgarity may exist in the research lab environment, its entirely inappropriate for undergraduates or summer interns to use that kind of language. I don't care how great the student is, if he or she is dropping f-bombs everywhere that certainly won't garner them a good reputation and, at the end of the day, the student needs the lab experience and letter of rec. The PI doesn't need **** from the student lol.

If you find profanity so accepting, I'd suggest you start your own guide for summer research etiquette and make point number one to be as vulgar as possible.

/discussion

*clap*
 
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