For my STEP signature project, I worked in a yeast genetics lab at The Ohio State University during my summer months. This was my first experience in a professional laboratory setting, and there I worked alongside graduate and doctorate students alike to further our understandings of genetic processes in budding yeast, knowledge which can then be applied to human genetics. The majority of my experiments involved inspecting the budding patterns of yeast cells with various mutations, as well as digesting plasmid DNA in order to verify the identity of these mutants.
Because this was my first time working in a professional lab, I learned a lot about the daily work ethic and mindset of career researchers. At first, it was overwhelming to consider all of the seemingly tedious details that go into executing an experiment. When doing laboratory work, the goal is to produce publishable results. This means that I learned to take meticulous notes regarding what steps I took for perform these tasks, and grew to appreciate the delicate art of the scientific method. Often, students learning about the scientific method in class overlook one of its most valuable steps—determining how to turn poor results into good results in a follow-up experiment. Out of everything that I learned from this lab, this lesson must be the most important. One of my colleagues reportedly spent six months perfecting the construction of a desired mutant plasmid, yet they remained determined to see their experiment to completion because the end results were rewarding beyond measure.
All in all, I now have a great appreciation for the scientific process. Laboratory work is an art that takes immense patience, care, and perseverance; as a result of my time spent in this lab, I can confidently attest that I grew to demonstrate these qualities to their fullest by the end of the summer. The best evidence of this is that my lab director was kind enough to ask me to stay on the lab roster part-time through the fall semester, a position which I gladly accepted. Even more rewarding is that I am now helping to train new undergraduates in the lab so that they develop these essential qualities of patience, care, and perseverance that lab work requires.
Looking back over my summer research experience as a whole, I can identify specific times at which I truly felt that my future was being impacted. For instance, my second day in the lab consisted of learning to run a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) experiment. In the DNA research community, PCR is arguably one of the most crucial tools a scientist can have at their disposal. Because everything I was doing was for the first time, it took me a while to trudge through the procedure. Nonetheless, I left at the end of the day with a sense of pride. A couple years before, I was merely being told the benefits of PCR by a biology teacher and never thought I might one day be using this technique myself. But sure enough, there I was, performing this essential task as if I was a part of the science community. Surely, that’s what it meant (even if I didn’t realize it initially)—joining this lab as a research assistant meant that I was a part of the global research community.
My sense of accomplishment and pride swelled further during our biweekly lab meetings, during which the senior members of the lab would give presentations, and everyone else would have the opportunity to share any progress they had made in their respective projects. Being the only undergraduate in the lab, these sessions were nerve-wracking at first. For the first time in my academics career, I was surrounded by people that were years ahead of my in knowledge and intellect. This turned out to be advantageous for me, however, as these circumstances forced me out of my comfort zone. My colleagues filled me with feelings of importance when I was given time to discuss my lab progress with them, and especially when they conversed with me as if I were an equal in the lab and not a random undergraduate who came to clean the glassware. It was in this way that I found inspiration to make my experiments the best representations of my work ethic as possible.
A final, impactful experience that I had while working in this lab over the summer was when I was first being trained to assist in the making of stock solutions and growth media for yeast. As my lab director described it, laboratory work is misunderstood to be an individual activity. On the contrary, I found lab work to be surprisingly collaborative. Our lab used a weekly rotation to assign side work to everyone. For example, I may have had to sterilize a large nutritious yeast media for the use of anyone in the lab one week. If I fell behind on my duties, or was careless in my duties, the entire lab’s work would suffer as a result. Because of this, each individual in the lab relied on each other for the success of their experiments. It was an excellent dynamic, in my opinion, because seniority or degree didn’t matter in this aspect—undergraduates, like me, and doctorate students were to carry out these same responsibilities just the same. Despite the gap in knowledge and experience between myself and the others in my lab, we were all united and grounded by this system of reliance and teamwork, which proved to be my favorite part of laboratory work this summer. Not only did I command the success of my own experiments, but my hard work also was able to help my mentors to succeed in their experiments as well. It ultimately made me feel like a necessary part of the lab, and not an expendable intern that other undergraduate students may be reduced to in other settings.
In conclusion, this experience has been influential in my plans for my future academics and eventual career. It has always been my intention to enroll in a graduate program after my time at OSU, and my research experience has served to bolster this ambition. However, I entered this lab in June unsure of what I would like to specialize in for my graduate program. In addition to seeking practical lab work experience, I sought to use this opportunity to explore how much I might enjoy a career as a researcher. Despite the many fascinating aspects of lab work, I have discovered that it would not be the correct career path for me, as I would prefer a greater amount of personal interaction. However, this lab did prove my interest in genetics, allowing me to hone my career ambitions on genetic counseling, a profession that combines the academic payoff of studying genetics and my personal preferences of being in social settings. Again, I will be continuing my work in this lab throughout the fall semester, and likely the spring, too. Without the funding from STEP, I may not have been able to discover my newfound interest in genetic counseling, neither would I have been able to develop the traits of a professional researcher which I will undoubtedly be able to apply to my future academic ventures, all for which I am grateful.