Experience as a Researcher

My interest in research stems from a curiosity for how the world (especially the parts we can’t see) works. I want to constantly be learning about the mechanisms of cells, development, and gene expression. It was this passion for discovery that prompted me to reach out to Dr. Sarah Hainer via email about the work her lab does to understand gene regulatory networks. Taking the initiative to ask questions and express my curiosity paid off when I joined Dr. Hainer’s lab in Fall of 2021. My first semester in the lab was spent mainly observing other lab members’ projects, familiarizing myself with topics, and reading relevant papers. It wasn’t until my second semester as a member of the lab that I started my research project: determining the role of eRNAs in regulating expression of OCT4 mRNA.

Throughout my research experience, I have gained an appreciation for not just the biological knowledge produced but also the process and experiments that go into answering a research question. Unlike in a laboratory class environment, where there is a limited time frame and set conditions to guarantee some conclusions can be made to teach concepts, research involves a lot of unanticipated problem solving. When results are not produced or confirmations are not met, new experimental methods must be used to figure out reasons behind what you observe and how to account for unexpected factors. I find it fascinating to isolate what variables can be changed, optimize conditions that produce the best results, and conceptualize biological explanations.

Another part of working in Dr. Hainer’s lab I enjoy is its highly collaborative nature. Everyone in the lab has their own research project. However, with biweekly presentations and daily interactions, everyone is kept up to date on the progress of others’ projects. Lab members offer feedback, including how to troubleshoot any problems. The projects contribute to each other, and frequent interactions can be relevant to questions of my research. 

After finishing my undergraduate career at Pitt, I hope to continue collaborating with researchers, pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences, and then find a job working in a lab at a company or university where I can continue to utilize my passion for research. By gaining more experience this semester in the Hainer lab, I am exposed to ideas and questions about gene expression, the impacts changes in gene expression can have on biological processes, and how this translates into more clinical aspects. Therefore, I have a much more informed perspective when considering future research projects and scientific fields I might consider for my PhD research. Am I interested in studying the basic mechanisms of gene expression and chromatin dynamics, the manifestation of defects in these processes within disease states, or something else? This semester’s research will help me gain experience to understand what I most want to explore during my PhD and get closer to the next step in my career goals.

My advice to any student with similar goals or interests in research is to figure out what kind of questions excite you and don’t be afraid to reach out to professors or researchers involved in answering those questions.

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