“Can You Repeat That?”
“Can you repeat that?” is what I’ve been asking my mentor for the past three weeks. It is amazing how much I don’t know. This realization has come to me after beginning to work in a genetics lab within the chemical engineering department this summer. On multiple occasions, my chemical engineering professors have claimed chemical engineers are highly suited for nearly any position in stem because of our extremely versatile and rigorous curriculum. While I still believe this claim has merit, I think it is up for review with me as the case study. There is one aspect from the curriculum that I adhere to every day as an intern. That is: know it now, and know it alone. Prior to joining Professor Dey’s lab, I had basic knowledge of genetic processes acquired from obtaining an associate’s degree in biology. This knowledge served to stimulate my interests in the field, however it was far from sufficient to allow me intricate understanding of the methods used by professor Dey and his lab. I had a lot to learn, and I still do. For the past three weeks, I have worked on learning genetic processes, cellular processes, two new programming languages, DNA sequencing techniques, Dr. Dey’s novel technique for detecting double stranded DNA breaks (stay tuned for publications), DNA repair mechanisms, and much much more.
Starting out is the hardest part. The first week was the roughest because I needed to build a foundation of knowledge on which to build upon. Research is acquiring knowledge that has not yet been discovered. This aspect of research makes it quite exciting, but also difficult when starting out. It is difficult because previous knowledge in the field must be completely mastered so that previous knowledge can be applied to acquire new knowledge. This means countless hours reading papers published by scientists currently and previously in the field. I am new to regularly reading scientific papers and I have been previously spoiled by clearly written and edited textbooks. Every week I read at least three papers and provide summaries and insights that would help our research. While reading a paper, it is important to write down unknown words and obtain knowledge on them. The first paper I completed took me a few days. This is because every sentence had concepts and terminology I was unfamiliar with. It was a game of google searches and asking for help from my mentor.
These past few weeks I have learned how important networking is. The term networking seems like an artificial term which is why I think of networking as the human connection. It’s important to have the favor of people so they are willing to help. For example, I am in a new lab that is just starting out. We have limited funds and our lab is not set up yet. The graduate student, with the office next to ours, is working in a field similar to ours. He comes into our office regularly to store his food in the fridge and we would talk to him. One conversation we mentioned culturing cells in a pay per hour lab on campus. This graduate student has a cell culture station in his lab that is rarely used and he offered to let us use it, free of charge. This connection will allow my lab to conserve its resources and maybe offer collaboration between labs.
My research experience has just begun and I have a long way to go. If I can offer any advice to incoming researchers, it would be to humble yourself to learning. Starting out is rough and daunting, but perseverance rewards personal elevation and passion. An undergraduate curriculum is a passive experience; however, research requires one to take action. On your MARC, get set, go!