Reflecting on Undergraduate Research

In the last year, I have been making plans to put my STEP Signature Project into motion. My STEP project is a pilot study attempting to use fluctuations in salivary cortisol levels and changes in survey responses to understand the post-traumatic growth of  students enrolled in the Student Advocacy Center’s Sexual Civility and Empowerment Program. It is an on-going study for which we have just begun recruiting participants. The idea for this research project was born of a passion for social justice and fascination with the neurobiology of trauma. It got its start when my current PI, Dr. Tamar Gur, decided to take a chance on a novice with an idea for her STEP project. Joining a lab for the first time last summer, all of my wet lab skills came from an “Intro to Biotechnology” class I had taken senior year of high school; I had effectively no background in research. Thus, I spent the last year learning wet lab skills, behavioral techniques, animal handling, and formulating the research project. While completing my STEP project, which turned into a two year process, I realized the importance of taking initiative in my work, how to better communicate ideas and how to plan ahead. Additionally, learning lab protocols for certain experiments through repetition taught me a certain discipline. I’ve reflected on this experience and have answered the STEP reflection prompts throughout the following response.

I realized the importance of taking initiative in my work, not being afraid to ask questions, and inquiring about collaborations. I learned how to better communicate my ideas; working with a team of collaborators on the project forced me to vocalize and write my plans/ideas/comments/questions in a clear and concise manner, as opposed to the typically haphazard way I might arrange it if I were working alone. Along the same vein, I learned that research takes time and requires patience and flexibility. Working with a team, I realized that other people may have different priorities, and so I had to take those into account when asking them for something (i.e. if I need feedback on something, ensuring that I give them plenty of time and following up if need be). At a large institution like OSU, while there are a tremendous number of resources, learning to navigate through its web can be certainly time-consuming and frustrating sometimes.  

Technically speaking, working in lab this summer allowed me to spend time improving wet lab skills, such as RNA extractions/clean-ups, cDNA synthesis, real-time PCR, and learning ELISA. Additionally, I learned about the general tasks done to keep a research lab functioning, like autoclaving glassware/tools, keeping a neat lab bench, planning breeding experiments, and inventorying samples. Being immersed in this environment also exposed me to some data analysis and increased my understanding of the paper-writing process. I saw how my PI approached her writing and graph preparation and also had the opportunity to help edit some visualizations of data.   

Additionally, learning protocols for certain experiments through repetition taught me a certain discipline; I had to follow directions as closely as possible while thinking critically about each step–whether it could be improved upon or where some troubleshooting may be done. This, in turn, made me responsible for the resulting data and gave me ownership of it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this further motivated me to precisely complete the experiments. As cliche as it sounds, these changes have certainly sharpened my critical thinking skills and increased my confidence in myself and in my work, which have then impacted my future plans.

I have been collaborating with the SCE program for just over a year on this project and, in that time, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know their staff and seen the zeal with which they pursue their work, which is inspiring to me. I have been humbled by their interest in my ideas and their trust in my abilities; they would like to expand research efforts and I will begin working for them part-time this fall, transitioning into a full-time position after graduation. I’m thrilled and grateful to have the opportunity to mold this research position and see this research project to completion and, perhaps, even expansion. In light of this job, I’ve also decided to forgo graduating early and spend spring semester writing a research thesis; I hope to have more data to present from the study by then.

After graduation, while working for the Sexual Civility and Empowerment Program I am hoping to pursue a master’s in public health at OSU part-time; I will be applying this fall. In the last year, I have been surprised at how much I enjoy the research process. This whole experience has been so empowering and humbling; I have been able to construct a research project around a simple question and will hopefully be able to see some data come to fruition, as well. Thinking about my career, although I am still not certain of what I would like to do, the self-efficacy and research skills I developed during in the process of completing the STEP program will serve me in being more bold in my future endeavors.