STEP Experience: Undergraduate Research

Description:

The Second Year Transformational Experience Program compensated my work in a cancer research lab here at Ohio State. The lab developed my interest in medicine as I worked under post doctorate mentor and developed my own research project. My research involved in cell culture, mouse-work, and countless other technical procedures.

Reflection:

I hoped to get involved in undergraduate research long before coming to Ohio State, and prior to my STEP experience, I was considering research as a potential career path. I figured the field was always progressing and new discoveries were being made consistently. I joined the lab eager to cure cancer, but after spending countless hours in the lab, I had a different experience than I anticipated. My days usually consisted the same 4 tasks: taking care of my mice, feeding my cells, genotyping my mice, and running western blots. Frankly, I could not differentiate between the scientific advancements I expected and the thankless, monotonous, data deficient tasks I completed. Needless to say, the procedures I performed are essential for scientific progress, so I appreciate researchers much more than I did before STEP. Ultimately, through my STEP project I discovered that I do not want to do research professionally. Instead, I hope to find a job that with more unpredictability and interpersonal interaction.

Many of the tasks I did in the lab were independently completed, requiring little or no interaction with others. I knew what I had to accomplish on any given day, so there were few surprises. Many researchers enjoyed the routine work and the isolation associated with it; almost everyone in the lab listened to music as they worked. I was not so inclined to isolate myself further with headphones, however, because I wanted more interaction in my day. After recognizing how much I prefer team projects to individual ones through my STEP experience, I know what work environment to look for in the future. I want to be able to bounce ideas off my coworkers and have an environment everyone’s ideas are valued in the ongoing projects.

My STEP experience also showed me that I value projects with quantifiable results. Most of the experiments I performed in my research gave me values from which I created facts and figures, but there were numerous that had results based on individual judgment. Procedures with the second description included cell counting—approximation is heavily utilized—and mouse-tissue staining—the results are all relative to a “normal” tissue. This recognition reinforced chemical engineering as my major.

While I learned lots about myself through the lab, my biggest takeaways regarded how to be a more effective worker. Mistakes are part of research (and life, more importantly), and I made more than my fair share in the lab. For the first few months, I became incredibly frustrated when I made a mistake or got faulty results from an experiment. More than once I let a single mess-up ruin my whole day. The best piece of advice I have ever gotten was from a fellow researcher, Mark, after I vented to him about an experiment that went poorly. He said, “Sorry that happened, but you get what you get.” Mark was right that no matter how much I complained, there was nothing I could do about my results: I just had to fix it for next time. Mark advice helped me learn troubleshooting, and I became very good at breaking down every piece of an experiment and looking for potential flaws. I have applied Mark’s advice to countless problems I have had since then, both in the classroom and in my daily life.

Finally, I became a more effective communicator thanks to research. My mentor expected to know about my experiments, results, mistakes, and any updates. Initially, describing what I was working on to my boss was hard to me because I was unfamiliar with the terminology and I had never had a lab notebook before. Only after I was unable to repeat an experiment because I had not recorded all the appropriate information the first time did I realize how important systematic communication is. After that, I developed a routine of writing everything in my lab notebook throughout the day and weekly discussions with my mentor. While my days were long and often boring in my 8 months of cancer research, I learned countless skills and I became more self-aware.

Final takeaway:

Before STEP, I had trouble making decisions and holding myself accountable for those decisions. For example, sophomore year on the night before an important exam, I went to a movie with friends. Unsurprisingly, my grade suffered. I cursed my friends for bringing me to the movie and I blamed my teacher for giving the exam when he did. In retrospect, I cannot believe how unwilling I was to take the blame. The lab was a reality check because I had virtually nobody else to blame when I made a mistake. I was the only one working on my project, so when something did not turn out the way I expected I was at fault. Whether I added the wrong reagent, or forgot to set a timer, or any number of things that went wrong it came back to me. Learning to hold myself accountable has been an incredible takeaway because for the first time in my life, I am in the driver’s seat of my life. Each decision I make is my own, which is an enormous realization to make in order to become an independent adult.

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