Our professors make occasional references to the innovative work in the research on campus, but as an undergrad, we barely get a glimpse of what truly goes on in lab. In first-year lab classes, we are introduced to basic laboratory techniques and gain an understanding on lab safety. It is amazing to see how much lab courses mirror experience as an undergraduate researcher.
For example, in my intro bio lab courses, we had multiple lab practicals that tested our pipetting techniques. Getting the technique down seemed simple enough, once you got the hang of it in lab class. It seemed pretty straightforward, and I never gave it much of a second thought. However, in lab, mastering this technique is important to every experiment. Just last week, I was pipetting volumes of 1 microliter, and a quick slip on my finger could have led to us having to redo that part of the experiment. Another example is learning how to use a centrifuge. Without properly balancing the device, the centrifuge could be damaged, or someone could get injured in lab.
For me, there were also aspects of my undergraduate research experience that were somewhat unexpected. Obviously, you can’t learn all the techniques and procedures that you will have to follow in courses, so there is a certain level of on-the-job training, if you will. To me, I felt as if I was playing a game of catch up, working my way up to understand everything my mentor and the other graduate students in our lab was talking about. One big learning gap for me was my lack of prior experience in coding/computer programming. Without any formal experience, my best bet was to take to the internet and start learning MATLAB through online tutorials. In between work on our experiments, I often search up a tutorial or troubleshooting guide, in an ambitious attempt to finish a code that I have been working on for a couple weeks now.
Although you may be the only undergrad in your lab, it helps too keep in mind that you are embarking on a journey that hundreds of students have began before you. As a Gorman scholar, this feeling of self-doubt is further lifted from your shoulders when you talk with undergrads involved in research in other departments, who face similar challenges as you. The CSEP internships are an amazing experience which I’d recommend to any undergraduate. The programs teach you the applications of research, and how you can appreciate the bigger picture of what your project plays a role in accomplishing. An important part of scientific research is that it is incredibly collaborative, as each paper seems to pass the baton onto the next scientist to help solve the larger problem. In the Dey lab, my project involves making improvements to mRNA sequencing technology, and this project can be applied to scientists studying development or localized diseases. Whether or not your undergraduate experience inspires you to pursue a career in research, it is an incredible opportunity that will heighten your appreciation for science as a whole.