“Undergrads with destination to grad school, please have your email ready”
If someone had told me during my senior year of high school that I would be doing research on neuroscience, ecology, molecular biology, and environmental studies I would not have believed them. If someone had told me that I would work with bacteria, fruit flies, and even with elephants I would think they were joking.
However, I experienced all of this during my undergrad career, and although I lived through them, I still cannot believe that I got them all thanks to emails.
My Journey through Science
I started my journey in science without really knowing what my final stop was. I only knew that if I was going to be in a research university, I was going to do research. My first stop was at Dr. Keller’s lab in the Bren School doing Environmental Studies research. Here, I overcame the fear of “traveling alone”—aka the fear of being in a lab. This first experience encouraged me to apply for other labs; after all I wanted to learn from many other branches of science. I traveled then to a molecular biology lab where I stayed for a whole summer studying prokaryotic interactions. Then, I LITERALLY traveled to Kenya, Africa to conduct Ecology research in Dr. Hillary Young’s lab. When I came back I then embarked to neuroscience research in Craig Montell’s lab, where I’m currently working with fruit flies to determine the biochemical mechanisms of the circadian rhythm. While this is a stop in my journey, I plan to continue my journey to graduate school and to learn more about human biology.
I Don’t Have The Resources to Travel, How Do I Afford a Ticket?
Your email is your travel ticket! In the real world, people travel via planes, hitchhiking, or backpacking. I see doing research as an undergrad the same way; you can get into a lab thanks to your excellent GPA (plane), because you know someone (hitchhiking), or because you contacted a professor (backpacking). I did the latter via email and I would not have it otherwise. I got all of my research positions thanks to emailing professors and grad students whose research interested me. Even when I thought that I would not get in a lab, I always emailed professors expressing my interest on their research. This is how I got my trip to Africa funded- Just by emailing a grad student. So, even if you don’t have the resources to travel (Don’t have a good GPA, or don’t think you have the experience) DO NOT hesitate to email your professors or lab members. They might be able to help you and offer you a spot in their labs as their mentees.
Is doing research as scary as your first flight?
Yes, it is. I come from a low-income neighborhood with underfunded and understaffed schools. Working in a lab never really crossed my mind as I had never been exposed to research nor a lab. Thus, the day before my first day in the Keller lab, I was anxious and nervous. What if I would ruin my advisers work by spilling something? What if I didn’t understand something he said? Or even worse, what if I didn’t understand his whole project!? All of these questions crossed my mind. But when I got to the lab, the excitement of learning new things, the lab equipment, and the idea of contributing to the scientific community helped me overcome my fears. It felt the same way I felt when I boarded my flight to Kenya (This international flight was actually my first flight). At first, I was scared. I asked myself what if I couldn’t take the pressure change? What if the plane crashed? But, soon all of these fears disappeared when the feeling of excitement of the accelerating plane and the beautiful scenery from the airplane window took over me.
If you ever doubt yourself or think you are not good enough for a lab, just remember that most probably those fears will be overpowered by the excitement of learning new things and contributing to the science.
My journey wasn’t the smoothest. Like all backpackers, I sometimes got tired, got my hands dirty, or felt some level of uncertainty. But also, like all backpackers, I found the beautiful science scenery that not everyone gets to see and picked up lessons along the way that I’ll always keep with me. Working in different fields, helped me implement lab techniques and research approaches to my new projects allowing me to improve as a researcher. Life, as in science, is not about the destiny, but the journey. As an incoming senior, I don’t know if my next or final stop is grad school, but I certainly have enjoyed the journey and all of the lessons it has taught me.