Hospitality, humility, and other things I learned this summer

My last SwatStories post, several months ago at the close of my sophomore spring, was about failure. It was a little jaded, a little self-indulgent, and maybe a little too honest. I went into this past summer with a sense of resignation; I thought that I, a rising junior in a STEM major, would be all but laughed at if I went home to my small town and worked in a restaurant. I thought that a Bryn-Mawr-alum-turned-Neuroscience-professor at UNC Asheville offering me an (unpaid) place in her lab was a gesture of pity, not of validation. I thought that all the effort I put into applications for prestigious internships was a waste, and that I would come back in the fall with a sad, mumbled response to the question, “what did you do this summer?”

However, I decided to make this blog post a tribute to my difficult summer in Asheville. And thus, here are nine things I learned (not ten – an apology to those who like even numbers), in no particular order, about the restaurant industry and undergraduate research and embracing a situation I wasn’t so excited to be a part of:

1. You can carry multiple plates by utilizing forearm space.

I honestly had no idea you could get upwards of three plates on your left forearm (if you’re right-handed), and that you could carry three drinks in one palm if you don’t overfill them. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t internally panicking every time I brought a precarious food arrangement to the table. And while I may have gotten really good at fighting my burn reflex, there’s no guarantee I’d maintain that level of composure if the manager handed me three boiling dinner plates. Still, catch me in Sharples trying to balance entirely too many things on my forearm.

2. First impressions of your summer research mentor, and of your lab partner, may be entirely misguided.

When I saw Dr. Kaur walking down the hallway of the Biology building for the first time, I thought she was my age, and I am still grateful that I waited half a second before launching into the “Hi, I’m Kenzie, what’s your major?” getting-to-know-you mode. When I met my lab partner Evan for the first time, I thought he was condescending and scary. After two weeks, we were texting each other science memes, and by the end of the summer, he was hanging out at my house talking about how much he’d miss me in the fall.

Evan

3. 60+ hours a week, even if the money is alluring, is too much for anyone.

On my worst days, I went to lab from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., tried to work out in the afternoon, and then worked at the restaurant from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m. I always packed three pairs of shoes (cute lab shoes, running shoes, and ugly non-slip restaurant shoes), but never enough snacks (I considered getting the Chick-fil-A rewards app at one point). It wasn’t long before my sister would joke about me “actually being home” for a couple hours, and every other day my mom would try to guilt trip me into quitting something. I can’t romanticize this part of my summer, only say that I have no desire to ever work that much again.

4. As a rule: Bio lab is chill, Neuro lab is even more chill, and Chem lab is scary.

I’ve written posts before about my lab anxiety, and this summer was probably the closest I will ever come to getting over it. We (usually) had to wear closed-toed shoes and gloves, but this was all but a formality to make us seem like real scientists. I peaked into UV rays to visualize gels, regularly spilled E. coli on my pants, and had an absurd competition with Evan to see who could hold onto a piece of dry ice longer (in case you didn’t know, it burns!). But when we went downstairs to use the centrifuge in the Chem lab, we didn’t screw around. Everyone was wearing long pants, goggles, and lab coats, and it honestly looked like Frankenstein’s lab.

unca
The classic campus photo of UNC-Asheville, site of my summer research.

5. Going out with restaurant coworkers is a lot different than going out with Swatties.

What I loved about my restaurant coworkers was that as soon as you were in the payroll system, you were part of the “family,” and this meant you got invited to “Pack’s hang outs” almost every night. That being said, these shindigs were usually in someone’s basement, typically went from midnight-ish to 4 a.m., and likely involved a trip to Waffle House. Seeing your manager drunk was just a really weird dynamic, so I think I came out maybe three times during the course of my employment.

pack's
Similarly, the classic picture of Pack’s Tavern, one of my summer homes, complete with our pride and joy: the yellow 1932 Model-T.

6. Stay in school.

Our front-of-house manager was your classic young southern woman: constantly kind, willing to do anything for “the guest” (often at the expense of the staff), and one who threw the word “hospitality” in every other sentence. Still, there were a few nights where she couldn’t maintain her cheery disposition, and as she was bypassing the host stand on her way to a smoke break, would look at me in a sad, jaded way and tell me to “stay in school, Kenzie.” Don’t get me wrong: 2017 will probably not be the last year I work in a restaurant, and someone should smack some sense into me if I ever condescend to food service employees, but I have no desire to make a career out of dealing with everything (and everyone) she did on a regular basis.

7. Lab work is more social than you might expect.

When I’ve thought about (or when random relatives have asked me about) my post-graduation options, I would typically write off research as a last resort. I’d tell myself (or my uncle) that I prefer careers in which I can work with other people, and that I think I’d get lonely in a lab. My time in Klub Kaur, as we liked to call ourselves, helped me realize the inaccuracy of this characterization. Within a week or two of joining the team, I was invited to an afternoon at a board game bar (if you’re thinking PBR and Monopoly, you’re right), and I started organizing post-lab runs around campus in the weeks to follow. When Professor Kaur became a U.S. citizen in July, we had an America-themed barbecue with backyard fireworks, and at the end of the summer, I hosted a pool party, and she brought her twin “babies” (they’re three years old, but close enough).

8. Sigma Xi is nothing scary.

For whatever reason, when I emailed Kathy Siwicki in the middle of the summer asking if I could present my research at the Sigma Xi poster session, I was expecting her to tell me what I did wasn’t comprehensive or successful enough, or to at least ask me to fill out some sort of application. Instead, when I dragged my Mus musculus poster into Sci Commons on Thursday, I just encountered quality snacks (cider and brie!) and friendly faculty who patiently indulged my spiel about G-protein coupled receptors and TOPO cloning. I got to wander around and read everyone else’s work, and even duck out a little early to make it to Cross Country practice.

20170921_160037
A candid picture of me presenting(?) my summer research at the Sigma Xi poster session.

9. Going home is not a cop-out.

My summer was hard, but more than that, it wasn’t unsuccessful. I had the opportunity to make decent money (and learn patience, and how to carry three plates) and to gain valuable lab skills researching something directly related to my major. And I think both of these jobs, though not what I had hoped for at the end of last spring, could be something “resume-worthy,” if that’s what I want them to be. Or they could just be the source of another self-indulgent SwatStories post.

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