Advice to the Stressed Undergrad

I’m sure you’re all thinking at this point, “wow, summer turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.” I know that I am, because I thought I would have a lot more time to balance work and life in the midst of my summer research program. Consequently, you probably feel the stress from the upcoming due dates, final presentations, and rapidly approaching academic year. And just to add to the pressure, you still need to eat and sleep (hopefully well), and socialize. You may find yourself beginning to just go through the motions of your summer without actually taking in moments and enjoying it since there is so much to do. Here, I give a bit of advice to help you with some of these struggles.

Plan your meals

Making your own (healthy) food is probably one of the most difficult tasks to do when you first start the summer on your own. Oftentimes, it will seem impossible to make a new lunch every day before you go into lab, since making food is so time consuming. It is very easy to fall into the trap of eating out all the time. Not only is this unhealthy, it is extremely expensive and you will drain your summer stipend within a few weeks. Instead, you should focus on doing meal prep. Do some research on how long certain foods last in the fridge once opened. Then, choose foods that last a while and make a meal out of it. You can make this meal in bulk on a Sunday and it will last you for the week. This way, you don’t have to chop up that celery seven times a week, or wash that same dish fifty times. Even better, you can prep something healthy and change it up from week to week.

Become Immersed

You may feel that you should’ve published some groundbreaking result that created a paradigm shift in your field by the end of your undergraduate career. I’m exaggerating of course, but I’m sure you feel pressure to get good results in lab to prove your competence. I can assure you that you shouldn’t feel this way at all. Instead, you should let go of all your stresses and become immersed in your research. What exactly do I mean by “immersed?” I mean to appreciate the research for what it is, and allow the knowledge and exploration to take you through a journey free of the fear of not publishing, getting results, etc. Once you become immersed, you will begin to take initiative, show true interest, and hunger to answer questions through your experiments. Your principal investigator and lab mates will appreciate your devotion to lab through immersion more than anything— even if you aren’t pulling stellar results—because it shows you have the tools to be a great researcher.

Balancing research, school, and life can seem like an impossible task. However, it is not. It just requires motivation, perseverance, and sometimes a bit of guidance. The advice I have to offer for may not solve all of your problems, but it should serve as a good starting point.

My War with Protein Purification

I remember my first battles with protein purification—they were long, strenuous, and I never won. I couldn’t even get a few milligrams of pure, functioning protein. It became my least favorite lab activity. I began to cringe every time I heard the words “p53 tumor suppressor protein,” for it reminded me of my never-ending failures associated with protein purification.


This experience characterized most of my first full-time undergraduate summer research experience. It left me with a sour perspective toward research, because spending five weeks on failed purifications caused me to get no real work done on my actual project. I couldn’t start my project until I had pure, functioning protein. I never did get the protein I needed, so I finished up my final presentation for my summer program in agony.


I know what I’m saying right now must sound melancholy, but I assure you it will get better. In research, you will often be plagued with situations in which your experiments/procedures do not work for weeks or months on end. However, this is all for good reason, because it is how you learn.


Recently, in my second undergraduate research experience, I have come back to protein purification. I carried out four purifications over my first two weeks, and I have never been more successful. On one of my purifications, I obtained 22 mg of pure protein. This may not sound like much, but in the world of proteins it is quite a bit.


My first experiences taught me that you should never let your first pass on any subject—school or research—define how you feel about it for the rest of your life. It takes training and perseverance to become good at something, so you should always be willing to give it another try before you decide it’s not for you. Just like how protein purification became easier and more successful for me in my second experience, chances are, you will find the same successes in your own endeavors.

What They Don’t Tell You About Research

I’m sure that you all have ideas about what you think research will be like–reading, experimenting, thinking, and a lot of work. However, there are some subtleties to research people don’t really think or tell you about, and it isn’t until it happens to you that you realize it. Research, at least in a laboratory environment where you are constantly collaborating with those around you, requires a great deal of people skills.

What exactly do I mean by people skills though? I mean that you need to be able to calmly resolve any conflicts that could arise between you and your fellow researchers, and you should be able to handle the various personalities those you encounter in your research career.

From my own experience, as I became more established in my research lab, I started working more often and carrying out more experiments. Consequently, I started using more materials and equipment, and eventually I had some conflicts. One time, I was using a gel box and I hadn’t told anybody I would be using it. Then someone ended up needing it. When they approached me, I apologized and assured them I would let them know next time. Although it seems like a simple situation, it could have easily turned into a big dilemma if I hadn’t responded the way I did. It’s not easy to admit your mistakes, but it is a life lesson that is necessary to learn.

I became good friends with many of the graduate students and undergraduates in my lab as well. Each and every one of them have really different personalities. However, sometimes they are not easy to get along with. They may say something that you don’t necessarily agree with, or maybe they aren’t the nicest of people all of the time. For that reason, there will be times that you will need to swallow your pride, bite your tongue, and just deal with it for the moment. It won’t be easy, but it is much better than making a scene out of things and burning a bridge, because you will most likely need to see that person every day. Instead, if someone is really bothering you, talk to them later and work it out. If anything, they probably didn’t realize what they were doing or they might have had a bad day. Although what I’m saying might seem trivial, you would be surprised at how you may react when you are faced with a conflict, especially if you have been having a rough week.

I don’t want you to think that your research experience will be plagued with encounters like these, because it certainly won’t happen often if even at all. You should just be prepared in case it ever does. I assure you that your research experience will be fun, exciting, and rewarding!