Undergraduate Research: Making an Entrance

Coming into college my freshman year, I knew that I wanted to eventually go to grad school and get a PhD, and knew that I wanted to get involved in research as early as possible. I started reaching out to professors by October of my freshman year, after doing some digging on the Pitt webpages to find out about faculty and the research they were currently conducting in their labs. I didn’t get a ton of responses back, and some of the few that I did hear back from either weren’t accepting new students or weren’t even in Pittsburgh that semester. I did get a positive response from my current PI, Dr. VanDemark. He invited me in for a meeting, and I came (over)prepared, with a printed and annotated version of his most recent paper along with plenty of questions to ask. We had a pretty informal chat, he showed me the lab, and I failed quite spectacularly at using a pipette (that I promised I had known how to use— but it had been a while). In spite of all that, he welcomed me into the lab and got me started with doing basic lab tasks, making stock solutions, gels, and doing dishes. By the spring semester, I was starting to transition over to helping the grad students in the lab on their projects, and by midway through my sophomore year, I was doing independent research in tandem with a grad student, Ivan Belashov. In October 2020, I took over a project fully and have been driving that research ever since.

Initially, I had wanted to do research that was Immunology or Virology related, because I thought that that was what I wanted to go into at the time. With a stunning lack of actual experience, since I was fresh out of high school, that was pretty much based on nothing but a general gut feeling. I had reached out to Andy because of his collaborations with the Hatfull lab on the protein structures of novel phage proteins, and how those are potential therapeutics or drug models for treatment of various diseases. I ended up on a project not at all related to phages, but realized that I genuinely enjoyed what I was doing. The protein crystallization and structure solving was a unique challenge with a logical progression and solution. Doing condition screens and optimizations made sense. I could look at a solubility diagram of a protein and know how I needed to adjust conditions to get the results I wanted. In terms of building structures into electron density, it was quite literally a puzzle, something that I routinely complete for enjoyment at home, so my general contentment with it was directly applicable. At this point, I am heavily committed to Structural Biology, to the point that my grad school applications are exclusively for Biophysics and Structural Biology PhD programs.

To close, the advice I would give to students looking to get involved is to be independent, motivated, and professional. I would encourage you to find resources on your own based on what you want or might want to do. The FER program is an option, but if you end up in a lab that you don’t necessarily love, then you might have to start this process all over again anyway. In terms of motivation and professionalism, make sure that you’re putting in effort. Asking to join a lab is a professional experience in your undergrad career and should be treated as such. This is someone’s entire job, and treating it like a joke, or like a possible extracurricular for you to do is not going to come off well. But other than that, just make sure you do your research beforehand. Make sure that whatever lab you join or research you undertake is something you want to do, or have an interest in exploring, so that your experience is meaningful to you and your potential future endeavors.

Structural Biology is FUN!!

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