I went to UC Berkeley for my undergrad, so I realize how easy it is to feel overwhelmed in the environment of a large public university. I sometimes felt my peers came with manuals on how to be the best students: make a two-to- three student study group (not too big, not too small), go to office hours (even if you don’t have questions), and importantly, get involved in research. There was an implicit rule that research was virtually required if students were interested in graduate school. I didn’t question it and obliged; this was a box that had to be checked.
During Freshman year, I began working at a lab that was identifying the various role of a specific protein in the human body. I acquired invaluable experience and laboratory skills, from RNA isolation, to PCR, to even mouse care. Over time, however, I became tired of the redundancy of research and failed to appreciate the bigger picture. I concluded that research was not for me. Later that year, I went to a research talk hosted by SSSCR. The speaker, a graduate student, listed three key points that each research project should address: What is the problem? How will this study help? Why should I care?
These three simple questions helped orient me back to the importance of research. Research was the first step and the most direct way to find answers to serious medical problems. I followed up with the speaker about open research positions in her lab. With the graduate student’s guidance, I landed a research position at a Stem Cell Research and Bioengineering lab. The research involved generating different types of neurons from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to model various neurodegenerative diseases. I am eternally grateful to have had a supportive mentor and peers in my lab. I learned a great deal about stem cell science and applications, and gained a variety of technical skills. However, my most memorable lessons go far beyond scientific knowledge. These are my reflections as an undergraduate researcher.
1) Learn to ask questions. Ask yourself “so what?” — If you can’t answer this question about your research project, ask your mentor. Learn the big picture before you get bogged down by details.
2) Learn to question answers. This will help elucidate underlying concepts and encourage you to think critically about your project. Beware that not all answers are satisfying. And if there isn’t an answer, you have yourself a second research project.
3) Know your sources. Consider statistics on cigarette smoking and lung cancer sponsored by Marlboro — not all sources are equal. Note what might be driving and funding particular studies, and evaluate whether these factors would skew study design or results.
4) The act of writing is dynamic and instructive. Reflective writing was never explicitly taught to me beyond the humanities. Consequently, this was the lesson I learned last and one that I am still learning. By writing down my thoughts, I can more easily (and almost certainly will) find gaps in my understanding. In the past, I was often hesitant to begin writing before I was completely confident in the entire outline for a scientific paper. I have come to realize, however, that writing is an active process that involves constant critical thinking, reflection, and redrafting. Keeping this in mind, my strategy for research projects is to start early and get words on the paper — even if they are sure to change. Dr. Gilbert Welch, author of Preparing Manuscripts for Submission to Medical Journals: the Paper Trail, recommends that researchers start constructing three components of a manuscript before the work is completed: introduction, methods, and “dummy tables” designed for the possible outcomes of the study.
5) Research is what you make of it. For better or for worse, undergraduate research requires a significant amount of time. However, you have the opportunity to work alongside thought leaders that are participating in cutting-edge research. If you find a research project and a mentor that inspires you, be prepared to commit time to your research in order to truly thrive at it.
The philosophy of basic science research is rooted in intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning. While I may lose technical laboratory skills with disuse, the essence of the scientific method and its implications will certainly always remain with me.
PS: Remember to think beyond wet bench when you hear the word “research.” Research can be qualitative or quantitative, in a laboratory or clinical setting, and can involve basic science, public health, public policy, and marketing principles. These were principles I truly appreciated during my Masters in Translational Medicine.
Aradhana Verma has been an SSSCR member since 2011, past-president of the SSSCR- Berkeley chapter, and sits on the SSSCR International Executive Committee. Aradhana is an MD candidate at California Northstate University in Elk Grove, California. She has a Masters in Translational Medicine from UC Berkeley/UC San Francisco and a Bachelor’s in Cognitive Science from UC Berkeley. Her best days begin with a cappuccino and a book by Atul Gawande.