Getting into a Lab from a Undergrad’s POV

ImageOne thing that most freshmen do not take advantage of enough is the huge number of research opportunities available at a large research institution like UMass. I decided to write this blog about how I joined a lab, in hopes of encouraging future freshman.

One of things that I knew I wanted to do going to college was research. Science had always fascinated me, and I had always been curious in getting involved in the process. So when it came time to pick a college, the research opportunities that UMass could potentially offer me became the pivotal factor.

Having made a decision to do research, I had to pick a lab to apply to. There are an astounding number of labs here at UMass, dozens in each field. I knew that I liked Biology, especially things smaller than a cell. What I hadn’t realized was the number of sub-fields that are involved: Chemistry Biochemistry Biophysics Microbiology all had labs that appealed to me. Eventually, I made a short list of the three labs that appealed to me most.

Making a resume and trying to compose emails was the hardest part of the whole process. I knew that most professors would be unwilling to take on a freshman, especially one like me who had no research experience at all. I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a resume that portrayed me in a good light. I was fortunate to be part of the BioTAP program, which gave me access to Peer mentors, and their other senior friends. They were not only extremely helpful in terms of picking out good labs, but in helping me polish my resume. Armed with my resume I sent off some emails to some of the labs I was interested in. I got no responses. I did however have one more piece of luck in my favor; one of the professors I was interested in was my Chemistry professor.

I ended up asking if I would be able to join her lab during her office hours. In preparation I read some of the articles that her lab had most recently published. I kind of understood what was going on, but only at the most basic level. I think I caught her unawares by asking her in person, so she invited me to attend the weekly group meetings. This was October.

Group meeting was the most terrifying experience. You can’t really begin to comprehend how little you understand as a freshmen until you sit down in a room full of grad students and post-docs. They were speaking an entirely different language. I was shell shocked through the whole hour, taking notes so I could try to figure out what was going on. It started out innocently enough, and I understood the first 5 minutes of the presentation. Then the real presentation started. It took me four hours to Wikipedia everything to the point where I half understood what was going on.

The next couple of meetings went a little better. I did a lot of reading, of papers and Wikipedia, in preparation, and I started to connect the dots between the various concepts. Finally, in the beginning of November, something really weird happened. Someone asked me a question. It was very unexpected, but it felt good that I had persevered long enough that they were curious of my opinions. Unfortunately, I did not really understand the paper, let alone the subject, enough to judge the quality of the data.

A week later, my PI gave me an assignment, to start looking up a new project. She wanted to branch out in a new direction in the lab, and I guess that I was a logical choice. This started a new phase for me in the lab. Reading all of the literature.

In retrospect, this was really valuable, as I learned how to read scientific papers, and I learned a lot about metacapases. I read papers all the time, over thanksgiving break. It was a hectic couple of weeks. Then right before Christmas, I got some great news. I was going to start working in the lab for real in the spring semester.

The spring has been great so far. I am shadowing a great grad student who is a great teacher. It is really rewarding to finally do all of the procedures that I had been reading about for months. I have learned a ton about lab work, biochemistry, and proteins in the last couple of weeks. I have had a great experience with research as a freshman, and I would highly recommend that anyone interested to take a chance, and apply.


Written by Jacob Lytle.


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