ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT | NOVEMBER 2016
KU major: Biology, class of 2013
Current occupation: Medical Student
Mentor while at KU: Dr. Erik Lundquist, Dr. Jamie Alan-Olson
Q: Describe the undergraduate research experience that you had while at KU:
A: During the summer prior to my sophomore year, I began working as a lab tech in Dr. Lundquist's Lab. My role as a lab tech primarily involved maintaining the lab equipment, making sure there was enough supplies to keep everything running, and preparing the agar. Before long, the lab was kind enough to offer me a chance to get involved with the research myself.
Under the guidance of my mentor, I was able to be a part of some fascinating projects; these all involved understanding the nervous system by using the nematode worm, C. elegans. These tiny worms are fantastic models given their transparency and our ability to identify and observe growth of their nervous systems. One of the neatest aspects of this was genetically modifying the worms so that a specific protein would fluoresce under the microscope allowing us to visualize it and track it's growth.
In doing this, I got the chance to learn many of the basic laboratory research techniques that I had studied in my biology classes, like selective culturing and PCR.
Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned while doing undergraduate research?
A: My experience was beneficial from multiple perspectives. For one, I gained a wealth of knowledge, not only in regard to biology but also in regard to laboratory skill. Doing these things, like culturing bacteria and working with microscopes on a daily basis, made it significantly easier to study for classes such as microbiology since I could simply think back on my own experiences when answering questions.
Secondly, getting to work with such talented and knowledgeable individuals gave me an opportunity to soak up a wealth of information I wouldn't have obtained otherwise. I gained a lot from my classes, but my experiences in the lab strengthened my understanding of biology significantly more.
Of course, my research experience also benefited me on paper. While this wasn't the primary focus, one can't deny that having this on my application was a bonus when I applied to medical school. I recall being asked several questions about my research experience and what it meant to me in my interviews. Not to mention, I was able to get a very good letter of recommendation from it too.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates who might be interested in doing research or creative work?
A: For those interested in doing things like research, I say go for it. Give it a try and find out if you like it. Even if it's not for you, it can be an advantageous use of your time. Whether or not your research ends up being directly applicable to what you do in your career is not all that important.
Just the fact that you put out the effort to gain experience shows a lot. You will get the chance to meet many interesting and helpful individuals along the way too, many of whom might be key players in shaping your career path.
When I was looking to do research initially, I could not find an opening. This is how I became the lab tech, as it was as close as I could get to research for the summer. After working there for half a year or so I was offered the chance to start doing research. So, if you find yourself in a position where there aren't openings in the type of lab or department you would like to be involved with, consider getting your foot in the door first, and you might find yourself in the desired position in the end.
Q: Do you use any of the skills or perspectives gained doing research in your current occupation? How so?
A: Throughout my first and second year of medical school, all students were enrolled in histopathology class, where we would examine slides of various tissue. While I did not have experience in looking at different types of tissue, understanding how things looked like under a microscope was a huge head start in itself. Not to mention, we were tested on specific concepts and facts that I had learned directly from my research experience. Thus, my research experience gave me an advantage in several ways in regard to academics. What's more, my understanding of basic laboratory research has given me a unique perspective, in that I now see basic research and medicine as one continuum of scientific knowledge and application. Without the long hours our researchers spend in the laboratories, our health care might cease to grow at the rate necessary to sustain a growing and aging population. I feel that this outlook I have acquired allows me to appreciate research more fully, and recognize the importance of integrating multidisciplinary collaboration into medicine.
Q: Many undergraduates are making decisions about what to do after they graduate from KU. Having been in those shoes, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Do you have any advice?
A: All that can come from doing undergraduate research is the opening of more doors. Whether or not you decide to go into a career that has any relevance to your research, the experience you gain will undoubtedly be helpful in some way. If you are interested in going into a field that involves your undergraduate research then this experience can help you decide for sure whether or not it's for you, in addition to gaining you important contact references. If you are hoping to go into a career that has nothing to do with your undergraduate research, you haven't burned any bridges either, as research experience during undergraduate schooling is educational far beyond just the topic of study in your lab. Therefore, my advice would be to get involved in something you think is interesting, but either way you will be hard-pressed to make the wrong decision at this point in your career; the broader the range of experiences during undergrad, the better.