Undergraduate Summer Research: How to succeed your first time in the lab

7:38:00 AM

Jenna Ryder, undergraduate student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Mixing a 1% agarose gel this summer at 
the Air Force Academy.
This summer, as an undergrad in my junior year, I had the opportunity to gain real research experience. I was lucky to the have the chance to participate in research at the United States Air Force Academy Life Sciences Research Center. It immediately became clear that working in a research lab is not like working in a class lab. There is no set curriculum, no one checks your work to make sure you’re not screwing things up (after the first few days at least), and the researchers don’t always have all the answers. 

The first day there, I was introduced to the project and the researchers basically said, “We don’t know what exactly this organism is. Look at the pictures and identify the cultures.” This was a huge shock to me, as they had been working on the project for months and I assumed that they already knew the specifics of the cultures.  I immediately set off to the library (major Hermione moment) and tracked down what books I could find about our organisms. But information
was still hard to find, as evidenced by the fact that we spent the entire summer trying to narrow down what exactly our cultures contained.  

Finally on the last day, we successfully isolated something that we could send in for sequencing—and still didn’t know for sure what it was. I still have no idea what exactly I was looking at, even after spending hours at the microscope taking pictures and comparing them to the examples in the textbooks. I could easily have spent many more months staring at those pictures. But I did learn some important lessons from my time in the lab:

They won’t hold your hand
Your supervisors are not there to babysit you and make sure you’re keeping up with everyone else. They need you to actually do the job and prove that you didn’t sleep through your undergrad classes every day.

Experiments are not always successful
Sometimes it takes weeks or months to get something to work right. It can be frustrating, but you just have to roll with it and keep trying.

There’s a lot of improvisation
While there is a question you’re trying to answer, there isn’t a clear way to get there. You just have to fall back to the things you learned in class and be persistent, even when the samples in your experiments repeatedly dry out and die.

My most useful skills came from a microbiology lab, genetics lab, and chemistry
In a biology research lab, there is a lot of overlap with many college classes. Don’t assume that because it’s a biology lab you won’t be using skills from other disciplines. I used sterile technique and bacterial culturing skills from my microbiology lab, PCR and gel electrophoresis skills from my genetics lab, and dimensional analysis from chemistry—because yes, you do have to do math.

You will make mistakes
It's inevitable that you will make some mistakes. Sometimes gels rip or the wrong reagents are used because the bottles look too similar. It happens. Learn from the experience and try again.

Label everything
Making sure every single little thing was labeled became the bane of my existence for the first few weeks in the lab. After mixing up the samples in whole procedures and wasting reagents in the process, I decided to keep all of my samples in the same order through the rest of the summer—even in different experiments—and triple check my labeling so I didn’t mix things up. It seems simple but it’s easy to overlook.
And lastly,

Don’t be afraid to ask them to explain something you don’t understand or to repeat instructions
You’re an undergrad—they’re going to expect you to ask questions because of your considerable knowledge gaps. They may actually get suspicious if you don’t ask questions. If you need them to remind you how to use the super-fancy (and expensive) equipment, do so. If you’re self-conscious like me it can be terrifying to ask how to adjust the camera settings on the microscope for the tenth time because you don’t want to look dumb, but it’s better to ask than waste time fiddling around with the computer.

If you don’t understand why one primer is better than the other for your particular culture, or what the different advantages are of using a plant genomic kit versus a bacterial genomic kit, ask! It makes it more interesting to know why you’re using the specific reagents and kits than just following directions. And in your future research experiences you’ll have a better idea of what to use without having to start from scratch.

Keeping a few of these lessons in mind will lead the way to a successful undergrad research experience. The ultimate take home: don’t stress out too much and remember to have fun!

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