Apr 25 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I had fun reading the various #gatewaytoscience tweets late last week. People wrote in what initially got them into science. I think anyone who is a scientist as an adult probably had some interest in science as a kid and it was fun reading about the various books, teachers, experiences that got people hooked. But the tweets I found more interesting were those that describe how folks became interested in science as adults. And I wanted to share my own experience, not because it is particularly interesting, but because it is apropos about recent discussions about undergraduate access to research labs. When I started college I knew I wanted to do some sort of life science (molecular biology sounded good, although I had no idea at the time what that actually meant). My first semester I enrolled in a Neuroscience course. I was very excited because I literally knew zero about the nervous system, and that was pretty much the same for everyone else in the course. This was a great equalizer, because we were all on the same footing and about to learn some really cool things about an incredibly complex system. Needless to say I was floored by the course. It was a huge lecture course with about 350 students and team taught by various faculty but I remember just being awestruck, and decided I wanted to learn everything I could about neuroscience (I also realized that molecular biology, at the time, was kinda boring to me). So I kept on taking neuroscience courses and becoming more and more enamored. I remember going home that first summer and working in my father's hardware store and just thinking about how I'd much rather be working in a lab. So sophomore year I went back determined to work in a lab. I approached my favorite professor, told him I wanted to learn everything about the work in his lab and wanted to do research. He told me his lab was already too big, that he appreciated my enthusiasm but sorry. So I kept on bugging him until finally, second semester he offered me a volunteer position. For two semesters I volunteered (also got a summer fellowship for both ensuing summers) and then I worked in the lab for course credit the other semesters. I have to say this was a life-changing and career defining experience. Not only did I get to do a bunch of incredibly cool things (record from neurons! study memory in a dish! slice and stain brain slices!), I also learned so much both from the PI and from the other people in lab. I learned what research was like, how to make figures, how to analyze data, I got to present at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, was co author in a glam pub and was also first author in another paper based on my senior thesis. To me having this opportunity, first as a volunteer and then as an honors student, was central to me becoming a neuroscientist, and to hear someone say that I was being 'exploited' because the PI benefited from my labor seems ridiculous.

Not to say that unpaid undergrad volunteers can not end up in a more exploitative situation, as proposed elsewhere. Especially with lack of mentorship and being relegated to menial tasks like making stocks and washing dishes, rather than contributing to a project. So just because I wasn't exploited doesn't mean that others haven't suffered from such an arrangement. But what I see as the biggest issue here is access. I was lucky enough that I did not have to work and extra job during the school year when I was in college, so I had time I could devote to working in the lab. Not everyone can do this, and that is why I have made the argument before that working in a lab should be something that could be used to fulfill work-study obligations. And so we should work towards making research accessible to everyone, rather than limiting the ways people get to do research. Everyone's path is different, what worked for me might not work for others. Nevertheless I think that lab experience really is something that should be done by anyone before they go to graduate or medical school. For future grad students it really helps you figure out if research is really for you, before its too late. With such a low probability of success of a career in academic research, you better really want it before you embark on your journey. For med students, science is really at the root of their discipline, and knowing how fickle and variable science really is will go far in making future doctors evaluate medical and scientific literature when deciding how to treat their patients. I certainly have far more confidence in a doctor if I know they've spent time doing research.

5 responses so far

  • sweetscience says:

    Another thing that factors into access is knowledge about what is possible. Like you, I was interested and so I asked my favorite prof to work in the lab. After teaching undergrads, I realize that there are tons of students who would never feel comfortable asserting themselves like that, especially being persistent the way you were when you were initially turned down - they are either waiting for an invitation, or don't even realize that working in a lab is an option. The latter is especially worrisome when thinking about who has access because those without background knowledge or guidance are handicapped at an early stage, relative to those 'in the know', i.e. more likely to have college-educated and involved parents, etc.

    • namnezia says:

      I wasn't "in the know" at all, I was just winging it. That said I agree with you completely, and this is something I tell my undergraduate first year and sophomore advisees when they ask me how to get involved in research. I tell them to start writing as many profs as they can and to keep on pestering them to learn about research opportunities in their labs. Same for requesting letters of recommendation. I participate in a STEM advising program for incoming students (most first gen students and URMs) and I think it would be a great idea to teach some basic skills like communicating with your profs, asking for letters, taking advantage of advising resources, etc.

      • sweetscience says:

        Yes! It would be great to bring those skills and ideas to the attention of the incoming students instead of just advising "when they ask me how to get involved." I hope for more EARLY advising programs like yours and more profs who advertise research positions to their whole class instead of inviting pet students or just those who ask.

  • becca says:

    I don't give a flying fig about whether my physician has *done* research.
    That said, I won't choose a physician who won't discuss the primary literature with me with a decent amount of analytical skill. I suspect there are multiple avenues to competent physicians in that sense.

    The academic medical center I trained at required MD students to do a research project. They varied a good deal in how substantial they were. I generally thought the med students were lovely to have around in the lab, but I'm not sure how useful the experience was for them. Overall, I think if you want physicians to have done research, it is preferable to just make it a requirement in med school compared to having it being a de facto requirement to getting into med school. In part because med school applications are competitive enough (pre-meds already have to get their clinical volunteer experience in) and in part because that leaves more undergrad lab slots for people who really want to find out about research labs.

    • namnezia says:

      I don't know. In my experience, the premeds that have been through my lab are just as engaged and invested in their projects as anybody else is. So even if they have a goal of getting into med school I don't think they are taking up spots for the "real" scientists.

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