I push open the heavy wooden door, the smell of fermenting bacteria and various chemicals filling my nose as I do so. Struggling slightly, I push the clunky grey cart into a world where terms like "DNA" and "mRNA" are thrown into conversation as often as "okay" and "thank you", and carefully place the beaker now full of yellow-orange bacteria cultures on my work station.
Finally, I can leave! I think, and breathe a sigh of relief as I calculate the culture's mass.
This was the last thing I had been assigned to complete for today (other than wash the dishes), and I can feel my anxiety over small yet significant mistakes, like forgetting to change the pipet tip and accidentally contaminating the sample or incorrectly labeling test tubes, begin to fade away as I close my binder for the day. Of course, this feeling is replaced almost instantly with stress over my bio exam in two days, which I hadn't studied as much as I would've liked because of how much time I had spent in the lab today.
"Ah, you've finished! Excellent!"
The voice of the grad student I work for unexpectedly enters the lab, startling me so much I nearly spill the contents of the beaker all over the table.
She struts over to me, and peers over my shoulder at everything I have recorded in my binder for the day for what seems like an eternity, nodding with what I hope is approval as she does so.
"Okay, looks good. Here are two more samples. Can you do the same thing you just did with these? Thanks!"
Before I can object, she shuffles away to her computer to finish writing what appears to be an abstract for some scientific paper.
I think of how much I still don't know about transcription and translation as I begin to make another sample, lamenting on how late I will have to stay up tonight so I can learn an entire chapter of Campbell's Biology in Focus in two days.
On almost every college tour I went on, the guide mentioned something about undergraduate research, speaking of how "easy it is to get involved" with numerous opportunities available, and how "rewarding the experience is." On one tour (the specific name of the university escapes me now), the guide compared their research facilities to institutes like Yale and Harvard, calling it an "essential part of the college experience."
I, therefore, believed getting involved in research as early as possible was one of the only ways I could succeed as a biology major, and that without it, my chances of getting into grad school and pursuing my dreams of curing cancer would fall apart.
And because of how much it was hyped up in my college admission process, I thought that it would be one of the highlights of my college experience and didn't think I would have any trouble finding a lab willing to take on freshman volunteers.
I'll admit it. I probably set my expectations a little too high.
And yes, while I loved the experience and developed a strong passion for research inquiry, and am so happy with my decision to get involved in biological research during my first semester at college, it wasn't always the most fun thing in the world, and there are some things I wish I would've known before getting involved.
So, here are 3 things I think you should know before taking on a similar endeavor.
- Getting the job is easy, but doing it? Not so much (at first).
Speaking from my own experiences, I can assure you that reaching out to professors who are currently doing research and potentially looking for undergraduate volunteers will be the easiest part of your research experience. What I did was look through all the professors in my university's Biological Sciences department, made a list of those who were doing work that sounded interesting to me, and then composed a short and sweet email that included a brief introduction to myself and my interests and an inquiry about whether they were taking volunteers or not.
I didn't really think I would get a response from anyone, but I was overjoyed when I received about 5 emails the day after all asking to set up an interview with me to discuss their work more.
That was the easy part.
What wasn't so easy was everything that came after, as you must learn how to "feed the mice" before you can do things like knock out their leptin receptors and study how hormonal signaling can affect weight gain and loss.
2. It will be "boring" at first.
As I mentioned above, you must learn the basics before doing the things that excite you. These tasks vary by lab/research interest, but it will always involve some sort of safety training. I had to go into the lab on two separate occasions to complete this before starting to learn basic techniques, and it sort of felt like a chore at first.
Learning basic techniques and procedures can take up to two days to two months; it depends on how fast you pick up on things and how much you already know. You may be working directly for the professor, or with a graduate student (as I did in my time at the lab), and it will be stressful at first, especially if (like me) you've never done anything like this before. That being said, do not be afraid to ask questions!!!! I cannot stress the importance of this enough. You don't want to learn how to do something incorrectly, and then a couple of months down the road make a mistake that dramatically affects the way an experiment is run/dramatically alters the results. Go slow, as perfect practice makes perfect.
This leads me to my final point, which is...
3. It will take up a great chunk of your time.
It may feel like a part-time (or even full-time, depending on how much you get involved) job, and it will become another one of your main responsibilities if you take it as seriously as you should. I was in the lab about 3 times a week and had to go in on weekends occasionally if I couldn't finish my tasks during the week. I treated it like a class and sometimes found myself putting lab work "first" instead of my schoolwork (hence my experience described at the beginning of this article). I stopped because it felt like something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do, and also because I found that my interests lied elsewhere.
So yeah. I guess that's what they don't tell you on all of those college tours.