For my STEP Signature Project, I performed research in Kevin Flanigan Research Lab in the Center for Gene Therapy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. Since the beginning of August I have assisted in research projects by learning and performing cell culture, cloning, minipreps, and CsCl preps, as well as assays including PCR, rtPCR, and western blots. I’ve been working in research since my freshman year of college, but this semester was the first time I engaged with the planning process of a project. The original plan for my project changed quite a bit from the beginning of the semester, and is now underway as a time course study of our gene editing therapy in mice. The development of the project and planning took place in August and we have already completed the first two main steps.
As I’m sure it was for most people, this semester was eventful for me, both in my lab and in my personal life. In the lab, I reaffirmed my understanding that research is not a linear process. Before the pandemic, I planned to research RNA promoters in cells for the duration of the summer. As time progressed however, we developed a new plan for the Autumn semester that fit better with the evolving research of the lab as a whole. The new project was significantly different from anything I had ever worked on before, which was an exciting prospect for me. I helped design a time course study that will investigate the efficacy of our gene editing therapies in a mouse model, which will take place from November to mid-March. I had always thought planning a research project was a somewhat insurmountable task, so getting started was intimidating. With the guidance of my lab mentor, Dr. Anthony Stephenson, however, I was able to brainstorm ideas and develop a working timeline, and we are now well underway with the study. I learned that I am capable of rising to the challenge and adapting my plans to better fit important goals.
My personal life during this time also followed a similar trajectory. Up until this semester, I had always thought I wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor, and I had always overlooked the fact that I didn’t feel quite excited about my future. It seemed like the right career path for me and I didn’t think about it much beyond that. This semester, however, while balancing school work, my research, and studying for the MCAT, I started to realize my lack of excitement for my future might be indicative of a need to reevaluate my plans. Being in my lab significantly helped this realization process. I was surrounded by people in science, and was able to discuss their life paths with them. I learned that almost no one has a linear path from starting college to landing in the right career, and it made me feel much more confident in my decision to assess my options and begin considering a new path. This past semester has transformed my life by making me aware of the need for change in my future, and giving me the confidence to pursue this change.
Deciding to change our research project, and the confidence I developed from successfully doing so, went hand in hand with deciding to change my career plan. This semester was difficult for me because I overloaded my schedule to the point where not even perfect time management could have allowed me to get everything done. I realized I needed to prioritize somehow, and I ultimately decided I would not have time to study for the MCAT that semester. This decision initially came with some fear, as I realized that I might put myself off track for applying for medical school in the spring. As I tried to figure out how to fit everything in, I was struck with the realization that I was putting myself under so much stress to be a competitive medical school applicant, yet the thought of medical school itself and becoming a doctor brought me not much more than a feeling of dread. I realized that I had been working so hard for something that I hadn’t even brought my head above water to ask myself if it was what I actually wanted. Although this realization was a bit scary because I had never thought of myself as doing anything other than medicine, it was also freeing because I realized that I don’t have to continue down this path. Ironically, overworking myself this past semester was perhaps the best thing I could have done, because in evaluating what really mattered to me, I realized what I didn’t want. If I’d had time to study for the MCAT last semester I would probably still be tirelessly working towards a goal that did not bring me joy.
Although deciding that you no longer want to follow your current path while having no working backup plan can be an intimidating thought, I could not have been in a better environment to do so. In my lab I am surrounded by people I look up to, and all of them were willing to discuss my situation with me and offer advice and stories of past experiences. By talking to them I gained the necessary confidence in myself and my feelings about my future to take action. I decided that I really did need to consider my situation and figure out how to make a change. The support from my lab helped me to reach out to my academic advisor, attend career fairs, and make contacts in my new fields of interest.
In looking into new fields of interest, one career that stood out to me was physical therapy. I worked in a physical therapy office one summer I was in high school, and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I started to think this might be a career in which I could see myself in the future. When I voiced these thoughts to my lab members, I was offered numerous connections to physical therapists that they knew. My P.I., Dr. Kevin Flanigan, also invited me to shadow him in the clinic, where he introduced me to physical therapists that worked in our building. These connections will help me develop a better understanding of physical therapy as a career, and if I choose to pursue this path they could be valuable career connections in the future.
Overall, this experience was transformational in my life. Not only did I gain valuable academic experience in research, but I began to form a better idea of what I want in my future. My time in the lab helped me to build confidence in myself and my ability to take initiative, and this confidence has spilled over into my personal life as well. I have developed a better idea of what I do and don’t want in my future, and even begun to think about a specific career path. My time in the lab has provided me with valuable advice and connections I would not have otherwise found to further help me in the future. I am very grateful for the time I have spent working in my research lab this past semester and look forward to my continued research in the spring.