One of the main things that drew me to Pitt was the multitude of different research opportunities available all over campus. I tried a few different types of research before landing on the VanDemark Lab and ultimately deciding that I was interested in wet lab and biology research. From my experience in my biology courses, I became interested in molecular and structural biology work. In order to find a lab I was not exactly sure where to start, so I started by sifting through the Pitt Bio website and looking at the different faculty and projects available. I was drawn to Dr. VanDemark’s lab in particular due to his experience with mentoring undergraduate students. Due to the pandemic, I had very little lab skills and wanted to make sure I had an adequate support system when joining the lab. After meeting and interviewing with Dr. VanDemark, I felt that our personalities would be a great fit and that he was committed to my growth and success in the lab. As a result of being so inexperienced, I was not sure what my work in the lab would look like, but I was confident that I would be supported along the way.
Likewise, when I give new students advice about how to choose a lab or research project, I always emphasize the importance of the research mentor and lab mates. Choosing a research project can be very overwhelming, especially when you can barely even read the title of your prospective mentors research articles, but I think having realistic expectations and understanding that this is a first lab experience and it is meant to be a stepping stone and not a final destination. I would say do your best to pick a project that sounds interesting, but focus on learning as many techniques and skills as possible that you can carry with you to your next endeavor. At the end of the day, having a project that is interesting is important, but your experience in the lab on a day to day basis is ultimately determined by the lab environment and other people in the lab.
My research experience has translated directly to my future career goals. Although the plans are still loose, I plan to pursue a PhD in molecular virology and stay in the realm of academia to some extent. The VanDemark Lab does not directly participate in molecular virology work, however, my experience in the lab with molecular biology and protein purification lead me to be interested in this topic. Regardless, both the soft and hard skills I have learned in this lab will help me be well prepared to have a strong graduate school application and be successful in a lab environment.