The Ups and Downs of Undergraduate Research: A Reflection on my Undergraduate Research Experience

By Joshua Kantharia

 

One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve heard in college is “get into research.” It was a statement that was echoed over and over again and many of my friends took that advice to heart, only to find disappointment. They learned that research was neither easy to get into or be a part of. If you’re having trouble getting into research, or you’re struggling to find passion for your research, don’t give up yet; persevere, and you’ll find yourself not only successful and in a lab, but also a better, more insightful student.

When I was a high school freshman, I had always thought that science was stagnant and complete. I felt that everything within biology was known in our textbooks. I took a course at my school called “competition science.” This course introduced me the idea that science was changing and growing, that there was a frontier that was yet to be explored. I was intrigued, but I felt like I was never going to see that frontier. I was only a ninth grader, after all. It was during that year my AP Biology teacher, Mrs. Grady, showed me how I could get in touch with professors about entering into their labs. I was convinced that it would be easy. After all, I was a good student with good grades and I was eager to learn. What professor wouldn’t want me?  I sent out 10 emails to various professors at Cold Spring Harbor labs. After those ten emails, I waited. I waited for a months. Two months. Three months. Yet those ten professors never responded. I was taken aback, but I did not give up.

After an initial round of silence, I sent fifteen more emails to professors in various departments at Stony Brook University. I was well into my sophomore year, but had little success. Two of the professors responded immediately saying they did not have funding and two more interviewed me but told me they did not have the room. In all four cases, I felt like I had tried everything. I sent out twenty-five emails demonstrating my love for science, my grades and whatever else I could think of. I was about to give up. I was beaten. I felt as though I wasn’t good enough despite my grades and my experiences. Despite this feeling of disappointment, I decided I would send out one more email. The last email was the email that, after nearly two years, got me into a lab.

After Dr. Haltiwanger took me in, I was thrust into research and onto a project. This would normally be the end of the story, but the struggle continued. I felt that my project was basic, that it wasn’t the cutting edge of research that I had originally learned about. This was due to a number of reasons. I became disillusioned and didn’t see the full scope of my project, and consequently, quickly lost my passion for it. I was both naïve and stubborn. I thought that I could get through this without asking questions or “seeming stupid.” This loss of passion became even more apparent when my project started to fail. Experiment after experiment would not work and my project seemed to be mired in mud. I thought it was an easy project: make a few proteins and modify them. That was it. As the summer ended and the next began, I found myself struggling to make even one protein. I could not understand why nothing was working and this made me want to quit. I wanted to give up because I thought nothing I was trying was working, that ultimately, I wasn’t good enough.

My postdoctoral mentor came to me after a particularly disheartening day. I had repeated that one experiment five times by that point with no success. He looked at me and said, “Negative results, and ‘no’ results aren’t bad, but are just part of the process. They also help push towards answering the question you set out to answer. Failures and setbacks are part of the process. It’s ok to see failure, so long as you learn from it. Take a step back and just remember why we were doing this project. Often it is easy to forget why your project is important or even worth doing. When you run low on passion or steam or energy, you have to remember where your project fits into the grand scheme of things. What is it that you are working on and how does it fit into the context of your field?”

His advice was heartening but I still felt like my project was stuck and going nowhere. My mentors had given me advice but none of it was sticking. But one day, I was going through my research notes one more time to see if I could improve my protocols. I then noticed that I should try something a little different in the troublesome experiment.  After that, I was able to move forward. I was able to continue a project that had been stalled since I started it three years prior. I was finally able to answer the question of why my project wasn’t going forward. One of the things that my mentors stressed was the idea that research was a cycle of constantly asking and answering questions. For the previous three years of disappointment and frustration, I was asking why I wasn’t succeeding. Now, I had done it. I had answered that question and I was ready to move onto the next conundrum. I felt successful and I wanted to move on to the next question. I realized that this was what made research so enjoyable and worthwhile. Looking back, I learned to keep trying no matter how difficult or hopeless my prospects seemed. It was also through the constant roadblock that I learned to look at the tiny details of my project, an attribute that I carried over to my studies and applications to medical school. The attention to detail and ability to question and rationalize information was a boon when taking classes like Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry. I believe that it was partly my research experience that allowed me to become a student ready for those courses.

Words of Advice

If you find yourself in a similar situation, do not give up on getting into a lab. Even if the professors and PIs don’t take you or they say they don’t have room, they responded and that means you were intriguing enough to warrant a response. It means that you have the spark that they want in a student. My last email was to my current research mentor, Dr. Haltiwanger. I met with him and he allowed me into his lab under the senior graduate student and then to the senior postdoc. I heard later that it was up to the graduate students and the postdocs to decide who would mentor me. Often times, the graduate student is either new or too busy to take on a student. It does boil down to whether or not these researchers have both room in their lab and someone willing to teach. Thank the professors for their time but also ask if they know of someone who would be willing to take on a mentee. If you’ve impressed them enough with your curiosity and enthusiasm, they’ll actually recommend you. The hardest part about getting into a lab is having the perseverance and drives to push past silence and rejection.

Looking back at those ten emails, I realize that they all sounded generic and bland. They were cookie cutter emails and didn’t make me appear interested. I was just another student emailing them. My teacher advised me to look at articles written by the people I was emailing so that I could write better emails. I looked up an article for an M.D./Ph.D. at Stony Brook Medicine and thought I was reading a foreign language. The article was full of jargon and acronyms for concepts I didn’t know; and I had to read more of these? It was daunting. However, as I learned the jargon and waded through the acronyms, I got better at reading journals. I got more skilled at understanding the language. It was a struggle, but it did get easier. I just had to keep at it and practice. Ultimately, by understanding their work through reading journals, I was able to write far more compelling emails and garner their attention.

Conclusion

My journey began with a giant brick wall. I was getting nowhere with interviews and meetings. I didn’t think I was going to get into a lab. I persevered and, ultimately, I succeeded. I got into a lab but it took a long time and effort on my part. Even when I got into a lab, things weren’t going smoothly either. My experiments were failing; nothing seemed to be moving forward. After some time, I felt myself becoming a better scientist, a better critical thinker and a better student. I learned how to properly analyze and interpret information to arrive at conclusions. Applying this both to my lab work and academics allowed me to succeed in both areas. Even though I had to deal with failures and setbacks for a number of years, I found that now, after six years of being in research, I’m a better student and scientist.

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