Interns and Ignorance

08/07/2013 12:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2013

The words fly past my head like an F-16. Coming at twice the rate of possible comprehension, they linger for what feels like a millisecond before exiting even faster than they came. Talk of CD4 counts, interferon gamma cytokines, and flourochromes far surpass my basic knowledge, leaving me feeling as though I am a stranger to the language of science. My mentor talks freely, as though the topic were as mundane as the weather. Meanwhile the dazed and confused intern frantically attempts to mentally catalogue the words she would later have to Google. It is only my first day, and already the shining 4.0 honors student listed on my resume feels like a complete stranger. Could the girl who has always prided herself on her intelligence really be the fool who is sitting here now? For perhaps the first time in my life, I feel absolutely stupid.

"Embrace your ignorance." These three words are what I wish somebody would have told me before this terrifying first day on the job. What seems like a simple piece of advice can turn out to be the difference between having an influential experience and being on the verge of a mental breakdown. These three words, as it turns out, are a creed by which any young intern should live.

With a connotation of bigotry and small-mindedness, ignorance definitely has a bit of a PR issue. Don't be fooled by its bad reputation; if used properly ignorance can be your greatest asset in any situation. When stripped down to its basic definition, ignorance is nothing more than a lack of knowledge. When ignored, ignorance can become your greatest weakness. When embraced, however, ignorance becomes your guide, opening the door for unlimited possibilities for learning.

Though three words make the process sound simple, but when you have convince yourself you have something to prove, the task becomes an uphill battle. After only one year of college, being chosen among graduate and undergraduate students to assist with HIV research feels a little like being a kindergartener drafted into the NBA. Being chosen with no previous virology experience, moreover, only added to the sense of pressure. With somebody taking that big of a chance on me, it seemed impossible to let my guard down and show my weaknesses. Surely, if my co-workers saw me for how young I was, and how little I knew, I would be laughed out the front door before I could finish my first week.

Boy, was I wrong.

Being an intern, especially a young one, it is the general expectation that you are ignorant. Internships were created for a reason; quite frankly, if you weren't ignorant, you wouldn't be there. Nobody expects the intern to be perfect; they just expect you to learn. Simply being chosen is a testament to your intelligence; the opportunity now is to learn everything you can from those around you. Your mentors and co-workers are all your resources; so don't let fear of looking foolish trick you into wasting them. Ask questions. Make mistakes. Be ignorant. While it is okay to not know everything, your window of acceptable ignorance only lasts for so long, so embrace it while you can. Once you can do that, you may be surprised just how far your ignorance will take you.

As my weeks go by I settle nicely into my role as an intern. The words keep coming, and slowly but surely I pick up on the language. I learn the techniques, the procedures, the routines, yet everyday I find myself amazed at just how little I still know. For perhaps the first time in my life, I find myself continuously feeling stupid; but I absolutely love it.