My research experience in the last two years has undoubtedly been the best learning experience I have ever had in my life. In my opinion, there are two major components to learning how to do research. First, it is imperative to learn more about how your PI thinks and develops projects, with focus on both retention of information and research approach. Second, one must reciprocate the interest in the research you are trying to do with reading research articles and other literature that exists in your field. For me, I feel this is the way I have always connected with my research mentor. With every conversation I have with her, there is something new to learn. It may be something as simple as looking at something from a different perspective or asking questions about the work I am doing, to giving me more ideas on how to proceed further to make the studies/projects better and more holistic.
When I came to the University of Pittsburgh in 2018, I emailed a lot of labs with my resume. Some of the labs called me for an interview, some said no in their replies. I got an email from Dr. Wagner’s Lab for an interview, and they accepted me. I feel that beyond what your resume reflects or what your grades are, a lot of PI’s are just looking for students who are genuinely interested in learning about how to conduct research. Dr. Wagner has done extensive work in the field of Traumatic Brain Injuries to understand the development of chronic disabilities and conditions like Post – Traumatic Epilepsy. Epilepsy, a condition that my uncle had, and one that does not have a cure as such, has always made me feel like I am at war with it. Seeing that Dr. Wagner has worked to develop biomarker-related precision medicine models to treat epilepsy patients in a better way is what appealed the most to me.
Uncertainty helps you grow as it leaves room for exploration. While I was excited to start my project, I did have a lot of doubts. A part of my project included doing extensive medical chart reviews to record seizure events occurring within 3 years of the date of injury for the patient cohort. The uncertainty I had was about what I should consider as proof of seizure which confirms a patient had a seizure and what not to consider as enough evidence for a seizure event. To address this, I talked to my mentors and we came up with a strict definition of a seizure and all the evidence that may suggest the patient has had a seizure. The definition included 3 rules based on which we considered if a person has had a seizure or not. The rules were: It is a seizure if – 1. The physician notes that the patient came to the Emergency room with the chief complaint of a seizure. 2. The EEG (Electroencephalogram) reports of the patients confirmed a seizure. 3. If any words indicative of a seizure like convulsions, epileptiform discharge were ever mentioned then we would show reports to my mentor, and she would use her clinical judgment do adjudicate the case. All these rules would help us decide who to include in our study to get the correct results without any biases.
For students, I would recommend them to reach out to as many researchers they can at Pitt, and trust me, there are a lot of them. Ask professors you are taking classes with to help you find a lab or take initiative yourself to contact some labs, ask your seniors, or ask your friends who work in these labs. If nothing else works, contact the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) and they will have something for you. For my professional goal, I feel that networking is important. Making connections in your field and outside your field helps you to get exposure to different ideas and work people are doing which might as well serve as an inspiration for you. For example, being a part of CURF this semester, I got to learn a lot about the amazing research others are doing by reading their blog post while I hope they got something out of my blogs. Pursuing fellowships like this helps you stay connected to the community and hence in the future I would like to pursue more programs like CURF.