CURF 2: My Path to Research

Every research endeavor I have participated in thus far began with a personal connection to a lab’s disease focus. My first experience was within the Anolik laboratory at the University of Rochester Medical Center in my hometown of Rochester, NY. At the time, I became invested in my mother’s rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, and while experiencing her struggles firsthand, I wanted to better understand the factors that drive autoimmune disease and identify new treatment targets for patients. For my first research experience I had a choice; do I pursue clinical, translational, or basic science research? After some reflection, I concluded that my interests were in basic science as this modality provided a thorough investigation of disease and the potential to unlock deeper pathophysiological secrets. Naturally, I was drawn to the Anolik lab, which studies the function of B cells in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus. And so, I reached out to Dr. Anolik to learn more about her work and gauge if she would be interested in training an undergraduate researcher during the summer after my freshman year.

I worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Anolik lab for two summers. My time in the lab introduced me to common immunology techniques while granting protected time to immerse myself in a basic science question. I felt fortunate to work with a team of colleagues committed to rheumatoid arthritis. This experience crystallized a passion for basic science research, but I quickly learned that a summer was too short to produce meaningful results. As a junior, I looked for research opportunities on campus to engage in a longitudinal project throughout the year. While surveying different labs, I came across the St. Hilaire lab within the Vascular Medicine Institute. Dr. St. Hilaire investigates cardiovascular calcification, a disorder I was very familiar with at the time. My grandfather has severe calcification in his aorta, and like my mother before, his disease experience ignited a passion to commit myself to its further study.

Although I was passionate about rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune disease before, it was in the St. Hilaire lab that I recognized a calling for cardiovascular medicine. I love the intersection between molecular biology and the vascular system, the heart’s role as the engine of the body, the impact of lifestyle factors on cardiovascular pathogenesis, and how truly interdisciplinary heart disease research can be. Furthermore, as the number one cause of death in the United States, I feel drawn to efforts that mitigate cardiovascular disease in our communities or uncover novel treatments to improve the quality of life for patients. Clinical, epidemiological, translational, and basic science research is the foundation for everything we know about heart disease. As such, research will always have a presence in my future career. As a pre-medical student, I hope to combine rigorous training in basic science research with preventative medicine in my future career as a physician and limit the prevelance of cardiovascular disease in this country.

For students interested in research, I would first advise them to identify an area of study they find meaningful. For me, this was disease processes that I had a personal connection to, such as my mother with rheumatoid arthritis or my grandfather with cardiovascular calcification. Research can be difficult, intellectually demanding, and frustrating, especially when your ideas don’t generate meaningful results. However, tethering yourself to an underlying interest helps you remember your “why?”, and can provide the fuel a budding researcher needs to power through negative results. Secondly, it is critical to find a research mentor that is invested in your career development. This can be challenging, as it is likely you won’t understand what you want to accomplish in your first experience. That said, having an open and honest conversation with your mentor can help you decide whether that mentor is right for you. Lastly, I recommend pursuing several different research experiences in different fields. The beauty of research is its limitless nature. There are an unlimited number of questions to ask and avenues to explore. As a new researcher, it is important to have diverse experiences to mold your interests. Personally, I think many fantastic candidates do not continue to pursue research after an initial poor experience. Look for a different lab in your field or try your hand in a different type of study. It wasn’t until my second experience that I had developed a niche research focus and interest. Like the old saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

Starting your first research experience can be daunting, like attempting to hike a tall mountain. Remember to take small steps and mold your passions. Eventually, you will build confidence in your abilities and a unique angle of study that aligns with your personal and career interests.

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