A Day in the Life: Working as a Laboratory Demonstrator

When I first volunteered to help out as a classroom assistant back in secondary school, I remember how much I enjoyed helping others to learn, understand and improve their skills. Whether that was in my primary school, helping children to improve their reading and spelling, in my secondary school, helping younger students to understand biology or just last year at university, helping first and second year science undergraduates to work towards the careers they were interested in pursuing.

So when I heard about postgraduate students having the opportunity to work as laboratory demonstrators I knew I wanted to do it. You are required to fill in an application form with your details and previous experience, as I mentioned in my postgraduate induction post, in order for you to be placed in appropriate sessions. After which you attend an informal interview to further discuss your experience and run through some scenarios you might face during your time as a demonstrator. Once this is all done and dusted, when lecturers require demonstrators for sessions you are emailed and asked if you can demonstrate.

I was lucky enough to be contacted and requested by one of my past lecturers who knew I was staying on at Lincoln to complete a MSc. As I had already completed the series of practicals as part of my undergraduate degree, she knew I had the required experience already. The series of practicals I was asked to demonstrate for are part of the Cell Biology module, which was part of my first year BSc Biomedical Science. As the structure of courses within the School of Life Sciences have changed, this module is now part of the first year for many courses. This meant that we had a group of around 300 students to work with over two days – a lot more than when I first did the practical!

The practical sessions were held over two days, with two sessions each day – 10am-1pm and 2-5pm. Each session held around 70-80 students and because of this were conducted across two joining generic laboratories with 8 demonstrators and 1 main lecturer. Beforehand we received any information we would need from the module coordinators and lecturers, so we could ensure we were properly prepared.

The first practical session of the Cell Biology module is based around basic microscopy skills. The session gave the students 3 hours to properly get to know a microscope, and it’s many components, set it up for kohler illumination and then work through the assessed part of the practical. The assessed portion focused on calibrating the slide micrometer and eyepiece graticule, drawing the specimen they chose and using previous work to add a scale bar to their drawing. While they were working the lecturer also played a ‘how to’ video from the University of Lincoln molecular lab youtube channel, which I thought was really useful for first time microscopy students, or anyone who needs a refresher!


We started the first session at 9am, so that we could prepare of the microscopes and learning materials before the undergraduate students arrived. After this we had a quick meeting with all demonstrators to make sure everyone was happy with what we were doing and with the marking for the practical, as it had an assessed component. The session started with an intro talk from the lecturer and then students were free to work through the practical schedule at their own pace. As we were working with a lot of students, I decided to focus on two rows of students in order to make sure they were all happy and got any questions they had answered.

During that first session I was fairly nervous in case I couldn’t answer any questions they might have, or I couldn’t properly explain aspects of the work so that they understood and could complete the assessment. Throughout the session there were probably only 1 or 2 questions I wasn’t sure on and other demonstrators who had demonstrated the practical before were happy to come over and explain the answer to the student while I listened. This was a particularly good part for me, as it meant that I could also learn new tips and tricks from other demonstrators. I also really enjoyed the variety of students on different courses I got to speak to, including Forensic science, Veterinary science, Animal behaviour and welfare, Biology and Pharmacology.

After we finished the first session we had another quick meeting to run over any issues students had come across, any questions that were asked a lot and check over the marks of the assessment. We found that several students were confused by the different scales on graticule and micrometers, conversion between mm and μm and what was meant by x400 magnification. This was a really useful thing to do, as it allowed us to adjust the intro talk and be more prepared to answer these questions in the next session.

Slide Micrometer Slide Micrometer under microscope

Slide micrometer and view of scale under microscope (Fullam and Pella 2010)

In the following session I felt a lot more confident and prepared to answer questions, and I felt our constant communication with one another made the session run very smoothly. As students handed in their final assessment sheet I made sure to check over it with them to ensure they didn’t have anymore questions and really understood everything they needed to before they left. Most students seemed to enjoy the practical and so did I!

As I expected I would, I really enjoyed working as a demonstrator. Although I felt a little nervous in the first session, by the last session on Tuesday those nerves were completely gone. Getting to speak to so many different students was really interesting as naturally they had lots of questions – some about the practical, others about their courses or just university life in general. Helping them to work through the practical was also very satisfying, as some students had never used a microscope before. I also enjoyed getting to see such a variety of specimens under the microscope.

I am looking forward to taking part in more demonstrator work, which will be microbiology!

A Day in the Life…

Image references

Fullam F. E. and Pella, T. (2010) Light Microscopy accessories and magnifiers – Stage micrometer [Electronic images] Available at: http://www.fullam.com/Light.htm [Accessed: 14/10/2013]

Microscope images (THE MEIJI ML5000 SERIES, PRIORLUX PX042 and ZEISS PRIMO STAR) obtained from practical schedule supplied by academic lecturer conducting practical session.


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