Sunday, May 06, 2007

Undergraduate Research Opportunities Changed My Life

I meant to write about this last week when everyone at SciBlogs was, but Im at like 70% right now, so Ill give it a go :)

I think Im an Undergraduate Research Opportunity success story.

See, every Friday at my undergrad institution, the professors brought in an outside speaker for the students from outside universities to give presentations. Inevitably, for the first four semesters of college, I always had some course scheduled for the presentation time, so I never got to go.

BUT, spring of my sophomore year, they brought in this neat fellow who was the head of this huge HIV research community. Like a lot of kids, Ive always had a fancy for viruses (and space, and dinosaurs, hehe!), so I decided to skip Latin to attend his lecture. And by 'skip Latin' I mean 'asked my Latin professor if it would be okay if I missed class one day and she said okay' :)

This presentation was great. The passion this fellow had for his research, the patience he went about setting up research programs that not only helped his research group, but also the African communities they were working with, I was smitten. I stayed afterwards to ask him questions for another hour or so. At one point he said "Ive been really impressed with the students at this university. We should set up a summer internship program for you guys!" It would be a great idea, as I went to a small liberal arts school-- we didnt have the facilities or the money to do high-level research. I didnt think much more of it though, as I fully expect most people to 'talk' about doing things, but never actually getting the initiative to 'do' anything. But then I saw a flier advertising for a summer research internship at his uni! He and our science division head actually set up the program!

Now, as a sophomore, I was a die-hard pre-med student. I thought that 'being a physician' was what smart people who liked biology did. I did not understand what research biology meant, outside of corn and counting deer (and I had very pro-science parents and family!). As a hard-core pre-med, my thought at seeing this flier was 'OMG MED SCHOOLS LOVE UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH ON YOUR RESUME!!!' so I applied.

I got it.

Those 10 weeks changed my life. Sure I just had a little undergraduate project- couldnt do anything that could potentially/maybe/could be infected with HIV, but it was experiencing the process of research, the community, the caring mentoring from my superiors (aka everyone else in the lab), the fact I was learning sooooo much and it was my job to learn... Fell madly in love with it.
Took me another two years to convince myself that it was 'okay' to get a PhD-- I was so concerned about what other people would think. "She must have bombed the MCAT" "Too scared to get an MD" So I took the MCAT just to demolish it. Kept shadowing physicians at the local hospital. Kept being super active in AMSA. I wanted everyone to see that I could get in, I just didnt want to. It wasnt until right when I graduated I told all my friends, I could finally admit "Guys, doing research is so much more fun than that crap Ive been doing as a pre-med for the past 4 years. I have zero desire to get an MD. I think you all are nuts, but good luck!"

Then I found myself with a different problem. Because it took me the rest of my college career to come to terms with the fact I loved molecular biology... I didnt know what to do after I graduated. I knew exactly how to get into med school, but what did grad schools want? Am I really, really sure I want to do this forever? I spent the summer job-hunting online for entry level research positions I could get with a BS. No luck. So I emailed that speaker fellow, way back from my sophomore year. "Hey! Im job hunting right now, and I was wondering if you had any tips or suggestions!"

About a week later he emailed back "Actually, the guy down the hall from me needs a research assistant-- Ill send him your resume!"

And its been a match made in heaven. Couldnt imagine doing anything else! Im accepted into a PhD program in molecular biology for this fall with the PI Ive been working with for the past 2 years (wouldnt ditch him or this project for a million bucks), about to have a few papers published (alllllmost arg!), and I love to go to work every day. All because I skipped Latin one Friday :)

The summer program I was a part of really took off too. Im a little grumbly about the fact that the kids get paid, oh, about $4500 more than I made (grumblegrumblegrumble), but I love the fact that the kids selected for this program have all been female (except for one male). With all the horror stories I hear from Zuka, Im glad to have been part of a program that encourages women to pursue virology, without isolating them as "WOMEN STUDYING VIROLOGY! LOOK!" Just so happens the best candidates have been women, and this program rolls with it! Sweet!


Dr. Duke said...

Thanks for getting the word out, in your own words. My experiences with biology were very similar. I knew about wildlife biology and thought I'd be a park ranger or something. Then I finally had a chance to learn about other types of biological research, and ended up going into molecular genetics, learning medical microbiology and virology along the way.

I, also, had no good advice from others about how to get into grad school, what to look for in a research lab or what they would look for in me (some only need "warm bodies", and they are not the best ones). So I sort of "fumbled my way" into a great program, but not the best lab in that program. It all worked out in the end, but there was some blood sweat and tears along the way.

Anonymous said...

Etienne de Harven and "Women in Virology":
I'm confused about the part where you say "without isolating them" in your last paragraph. If they haven't been properly isolated, with electron micrographs and purification from cellular debris and so on as specified by the galactic authorities in molecular biology, virology, and sexology, namely Eleni "ANY TIME" Poopadopeyoulouse and Val "NO THANKS" Turner of Perth, are you sure they really exist? Are you sure the statistics aren't just reflecting some non-specific binding in the Women in Virology ELISA? And if they exist, do you have evidence of causation?

ERV said...

Duke-- 'Fumbling' is the right word! Im just sort of bumbling around and, luckily, bouncing into great people!

anon-- hehehehe I cant top that, but I think youre on to something. Since one male did manage to get the internship, that casts doubt on the validity of the selection process. The only logical explanation is that women dont exist.

hehehe Thats the best Ive got. Man you smashed my sarcasm skills with that one! Good job!

Chi-Girl said...

I'm a ChemEng major, freshman, and working hard to try to find a research opportunity this summer, as I've read about the importance of it. There are so many opportunities, it's almost overwhelming, but I'm going to keep focused and get some applications out!

Congrats on your success!

Jessica said...

This is sort of a long shot, but you sound like you mostly have it together :) What are the chances that you've seen or heard of any opportunities for undergraduate research/experience in Africa dealing with the HIV/AIDS problem? It fascinates me and I really feel like God's taking me in that direction. But I can find....nothing! I hope I'm just looking in the wrong place. I came across your blog and it sparked some hope in me, haha maybe for no reason, but it's always worth a shot, right? Thanks!