CURF: Finding the Right Fit

It is a common myth that you are either a ‘research person’ or not. My relationship with research has been a roller coaster, and is proof that anyone can successfully pursue and enjoy research once they’ve found the right project and the right team.

My first exposure to research was in high school when I took 2 very different research-based classes: one was an introductory course to bench lab work, the other focused on literature research in the humanities. The bench lab was an absolute disaster: I failed to find the cure for diabetes, my liver cell cultures got infected with bacteria, so I ended up with zero data on my original hypothesis, and I ultimately wrote about identifying the type and origin of the bacteria in my samples. On the other hand, the literature research went exceptionally well: I developed my current literature review method and discovered an interest for the economic and political relations between China and African countries, a topic which I hope to pursue further in an upcoming internship.

Due to the above disaster, I was cautious to resume STEM research when I came to Pitt. However, it seemed important to gain more experience in that field in preparation for medical school, so I joined a lab in the Department of Endocrinology through the First Experiences in Research program. Throughout my time there, I became interested in neuroendocrinology, applied knowledge from my classes (mainly genetics, statistics, and anatomy), and realized something very important: I just really don’t like bench lab research. As grateful as I am for the time I spent in that lab, I realized the actual work I was doing was not a good fit for me.

Disheartened, I decided to give research one last try by joining a clinical lab. I had always enjoyed my hospital internships and reasoned that if any type of research could be my ‘thing’, this would have to be it. I am so incredibly thankful that I didn’t give up, because I have enjoyed every day working for the Geriatric Psychiatry Neuroimaging (GPN) lab under Dr. Howard Aizenstein, MD, PhD. With data and patients being at the center of what I do, this type of research doesn’t feel like work.

From this (somewhat long winded) narrative, I learned these important lessons:

  1. Not every type of research fits, and that’s ok
  2. Don’t be scared to try out different projects, fields, etc.
  3. The skills you learn for one project will often help with the next one

Many people assume bench lab work is the only ‘real research’. The truth is there are many different paths to take in research. If you have a question – an investigative itch – and the passion to purse it, congratulations: you are a ‘research person’.

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