Choosing research: how did I get here?

When I first started at the University of Pittsburgh, I had absolutely no intention of doing any research in molecular biology. While I’ve always harbored a love for the biological sciences and particularly the study of cell biology, I didn’t have a particular interest in the atomic details of proteins or nucleic acids and I was much more invested in my budding interest in anthropology. Dr. Zuzana Swigonova, my professor for Honors Foundations of Biology 1 and 2, demonstrated to me not only the importance of atomic details in understanding the function of cellular molecules but the benefits of approaching this kind of study through a kinesthetic learning model. 

This is the first model that I worked on that we 3-D printed – it’s a surface representation of GLUT, a glucose transporter protein.

The first time that she brought a 3D-printed protein model to class, I was surprised by how much it helped me understand what we were learning and by how intrigued I was by the intricacies of the molecular structure. My first foray into this project was helping Dr. Swigonova paint one of the protein models last year: although 3D printing is a great tool for capturing the detailed structures of proteins, it’s difficult to color code bonds and chains by changing out the color of the 3D printing material so many of the structures are hand-painted instead. I quickly learned how time-consuming and meticulous this process was, but I’ve always been detail-oriented and staring at that molecule for hours failed to diminish my fascination with its structure. 

In short, I was hooked. At the end of last year, I approached Dr. Swigonova to see if I might be able to join the team that was working on developing models of new proteins. She said that I could and recommended that I apply for the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship to support my work the following semester. So far, the experience has been incredible and I’m hoping to continue working on this project after the end of this semester.

I think that my experience illustrates well the merit of the advice that I tend to give students who want to conduct research but aren’t exactly sure what they want to do or where to look: choose a professor whose class you find interesting and who you like and ask them if they have any research you can work on. Lots of professors have active research that you might be able to join; even if they don’t, they might be able to direct you to one of their colleagues who does. 

Most research commitments are limited to a semester – it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t end up loving the research and you will have gained new skills regardless. Asking a professor can feel intimidating, but research requires initiative and a willingness to put yourself out there. Starting with a professor that you’ve already engaged with in class is a lot easier that cold-emailing professors that you’ve never even talked to before, and having initial research experience will help you find additional opportunities in the future.

This is a different representation of the same GLUT protein that we are currently developing for 3-D printing.

I want to go back to the point about it not mattering if you end up loving your research – I recommend that your first project isn’t the subject in the world that you are most passionate about. If you are planning to pursue research as a career, as I am, you will have years to focus on the topics that fascinate you the most. Moreover, as you get further into your undergraduate experience, you will have much better opportunities to do so as you encounter professors that can help guide your independent work. 

As much as I love my current project, it isn’t ultimately what I plan to do with the rest of my life: I’m planning to pursue an MD and a PhD in medical anthropology, with most of my research being based firmly in the humanities. Starting next year, I’ll be working towards a Bachelor of Philosophy degree with a project that focuses on an ethnographic study of online chronic illness communities. But I’m also planning to continue this research, which is outside of my career, because it lets me develop skills that I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to work on. One of my favorite parts of research so far has been learning how to use 3D rendering software to generate the models for 3D printing. It’s been a bit of a steep learning curve and it’s pushed me far beyond my comfort zone, which is exactly why I find it so valuable. Exploring other interests that don’t directly support my professional goals helps me build a unique repertoire of skills and experience that will make me a better doctor and researcher, and that makes any research I do – no matter the subject – important to me and my future.

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