I almost forgot to post this week! I’m finally making progress on my first project (the morpholino one) which means I have time to work on the second one (the optogenetics one)! While it’s technically possible to work on both simultaneously, they both require a lot of the same first steps (injecting embryos, dissecting spinal cords), and I don’t yet trust myself to have the mental dividers to not mix them up, haha.
All this progress means I have more to do, which means I’ve been in lab a lot more the past two weeks (and still smooshing in small dance trips on the weekends). This is probably true in other fields as well, but certainly in science, progress seems to be exponential. Because once something works, even just a little bit, there are 5 ways you could verify it and 10 follow-up questions and 1,000 variations on the original experiment, all of which would be valuable to some degree.
Oh, but I have one thing I meant to post about a couple weeks ago and can talk about now: summer internships.
I was recently asked how valuable I thought my summer internship was (I did the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at Mayo Graduate School the summer before my senior year) in terms of preparing me for grad school. My immediate response was, “A million*.” Which is to say that internship 1) is the reason I realized I wanted to go to grad school, 2) showed me what actually doing biological science was like day-to-day, and 3) was what changed my focus from behavioral neuroscience to cell biology. Basically without this internship, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be in a cell biology program. Not just because they wouldn’t have let me in (undergrads who want to go to grad school in the sciences: research experience is a prerequisite for grad school these days; but also know that being a lab technician for a few years totally counts, so you don’t necessarily need to get that experience during undergrad; it’s never too late to go to grad school and your current state will not lock you into any one thing!), but also because I just wouldn’t have realized that cell biology was what I was really interested in and so at best I would have ended up in a program I didn’t like as much.
I also think that my internship was extra valuable because my project really was my own. This is often not true of undergraduate research opportunities (some other people doing the same program basically just did what their grad student told them to do). I basically got lucky. I was working with a grad student, but my project wasn’t just supporting his. This meant that I was expected to plan experiments myself and do them all myself. Which threw me off the first week or two (I spent a bit waiting for someone to tell me what to do because that’s what my lab experience up to that point had been**). But once I realized it was up to me to read the literature and make decisions about dosages and experimental design, I got going and learned a ton. I also had some excellent advice from my PI that helped set the tone for the summer: ask a question during every talk you go to. Because that forces you to 1) pay attention so you can come up with a good question (harder than you might think at 4pm with the lights off) and 2) think about what information you’re missing. And it may be a question about their methods in order to personally verify that their conclusions make sense, or it may be a question about the next directions and the broader context of the work. And both of these are super important questions to ask about other people’s work because it helps your understanding and gives you practice so you can ask those questions well about your own work.
At the end of the summer, there was a poster session where all the undergrads presented their work. Most people had fancy looking posters that they had gotten printed up by printing services, and they had pretty pictures and fancy coloring schemes. I printed out powerpoint slides on normal paper (a suggestion from a grad student) because I was still collecting and analyzing data the day before the poster session, so I had to be able to add or take away information as it changed or got updated.
So I have these 8.5×11 sheets pinned up to the board, and while they looked nice and had a cohesive color scheme, they didn’t look nearly as fancy as anyone else’s. But one person gave me my favorite (admittedly passive aggressive and slightly backhanded) compliment, “It looks like you actually did the work for your poster!”
Moral of the story: research experience is absolutely essential for grad school, but I also highly recommend seeking out (or creating) opportunities where you are in charge of your project.
*I was looking for a way to say “a lot” but even more emphatically, and this was the phrase my brain chose.
**During my junior year, I did research in a psych lab with human participants. While it was a really valuable experience in terms of teaching me about hypotheses and proper experimental design, I was literally working off a script (to make sure the interaction with each participant is as similar as possible) and I jumped in partway through years worth of data collection, so I had no direct role in the actual planning of the experiment. And lab courses were always just “Do X, Y, and Z in this order.”