Before officially starting research under my mentor Dr. Du, located at the Hillman Cancer Research Center, I had never been exposed to any form of research before. I heard stories from my friends who had started earlier than me, and I would ask questions in wonder and earnest as I tried to imagine what exactly I would be doing in the lab. I knew that becoming involved in research would not only be important for my future career but most significantly, it would help me develop skills and critical ways of thinking, prompting me to think outside of the box and push my boundaries of comfort and certainty. There’s not one specific aspect that drew me towards my mentor but I remember her being receptive to my willingness to learn. Furthermore, her work within the field of oncology and hematology seemed interesting to me. Despite me not knowing much about it, at the time, I was simply happy that a lab was willing to take me in and show me the ropes.
I will tell you now that unlike the biology classes or chemistry classes you’ve taken that cover a lot of content but only on a surface level, the research you will partake in requires extensive knowledge on one topic, the depth of competency being somewhat similar to the bounds of the Mariana Trench. I remember reading literature papers on BRCA2 and the proliferation of hematopoietic stem cells and spending countless hours trying to decipher all the terminology and meaning behind the findings. When I was in the lab or in lab meetings, I was confused on what I was supposed to be doing because not only did I not quite understand the content of the research, I didn’t yet understand the techniques that were used to do said research. To simply put it, I was stressed and nervous quite often. I thought that maybe research wasn’t for me. Despite the challenges I was facing, my lab was incredibly supportive and provided advice and materials that they thought would help me. I spent one year learning techniques such as Western Blot, cell culturing and understanding of the growth curve, Trypan blue staining, and different staining methods. While it might not seem like much, I’m extremely proud of the progress and development I’ve made since the beginning of my sophomore year to now, where I’m a junior conducting my own project.
Here’s my advice to students interested in research. To start, you might be able to find PIs through connections but I found mine through cold emailing PIs under the department of my choice. You can either look under University of Pittsburgh undergraduate departments or the School of Medicine. When finding a lab of interest, think about why you want to do research, read some of the published papers of the lab, and email the PI. Being genuine is the key to success. Sometimes labs are full and you might not be successful with your first email but be patient, and you will get an acceptance into a lab.
My second piece of advice is to find a lab that synergizes well with your personality and what you’re looking for. Personally, I love my lab due to how supportive they are and understanding that the research they do can be difficult and confusing. They are very patient and helpful and because of this environment, I was able to thrive and grow as a student researcher. Had it been any different, I don’t think I would’ve continued research. Finding the environment that you’re looking for is crucial because it will set your attitude for research.
My last tip is to be willing to learn and don’t be afraid of not knowing. Research is hard and can be daunting but your PI is there to help you. Read lots of literature papers to become more comfortable with specific terminology. Being proactive helps you and also helps your PI because they will know what you want to learn, and it shows effort on your end!
Research has challenged me and forced me to step outside of my comfort zone. My lab has also helped me develop a stronger mentality because research can be unpredictable. Sometimes, the results are not what I expect and experiments can take weeks or months to complete. Being patient and diligent are skills that I’ve improved throughout my time in the lab. I’m extremely grateful for my PI and her lab’s support, and I believe that my time doing research with them has led to my growth as a person and a student.
100X Cell Image of Wright Giemsa Stained Blood Smear: