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Synergizing the graduate and undergraduate research experiences in the lab

Author: Urmimala Basu, Post-doctoral research fellow, Harvard Medical School

Excited, sobered, wandering, frustrated, grinding, cautiously optimistic, hopeful, survived, grateful. These words, precisely in that order, describe my years in graduate school. Getting my PhD has been the most challenging hurdle I have overcome in three decades of my existence.  Like my fellow PhD trainees, I learnt how to think about a problem, plan and execute experiments, and critically examine the results (and accept failure at every step). However, in addition to the standard PhD training, I was fortunate to work with two undergraduates for a major part of my tenure. Seeing the young, curious minds grow into mature scientists by the time they graduated was one of my biggest accomplishments in my academic life. When I left my PhD lab, I realized that the students were more than my protégés, they were mirrors in which I could see my own evolution as a science mentor. And I loved it.

My first mentoring experience in lab was ambivalent at best. While the two high school students I mentored, successfully completed their project, I struggled, due to my inexperience and their vastly disparate lab skills. Thus, when my graduate advisor approached me about mentoring two freshman students from the Rutgers Honors College, my feelings ranged from being hesitant to downright unwilling. ‘I am already overwhelmed with several projects!’, ‘Do I really have time to do this?!’, ‘This will definitely push back my graduation!’, were some of the many unoriginal thoughts raging in my head. But, for reasons unclear to me I said yes.

Cautious from my previous experience, I actively followed a hands-on mentoring approach. This, rather than being well-thought out and strategic, was mostly to push their project forward as quickly as possible. However, their willingness to learn and knack for details struck a chord. I actively researched better ways to explain concepts and enthusiastically looked up their questions that had stumped me. I was enjoying mentoring them! Soon they were doing their own experiments. While I slowly refrained from micromanaging, I did not want them to feel isolated in any way. Little did I realize that along with my perseverance and curiosity, being their mentor would become my own lifejacket for graduate school survival. After the first semester, in consultation with my advisor, I got them on board one of my own projects. Together, we powered through complicated and laborious protein purifications and soon had our collection of proteins, ready to be characterized. They were equally adept at independent research and group-work. During a rather convoluted protein prep protocol, when I asked what they would like me to help them with, prompt came the reply ‘You can help clean-up, maybe?!’.

Working with them helped me grind through the arid and trying phases of my graduate career. It gave me something to look forward to; their success was my success, their progress added to my own. It helped me fight depression, gain confidence, and kept me afloat in the ‘no data’ phases. Our three and half year long scientific camaraderie identified a novel on-off switch that regulates transcription in yeast and human mitochondria and resulted in a paper published earlier this year.

The transition from high school to higher scientific education in college can be challenging. Active involvement in research can bridge this gap between theory and practice which can seem rather wide in one’s early days of scientific education. Besides boosting critical thinking and communication skills, being involved in scientific research as an undergraduate helps to develop organizational and time management skills. Whether you write a play for the stage or a brief as a lawyer, the logic building, that research demands, can be an extremely useful skill. Experiments inform us of theory: for instance, performing protein purifications can really help clarify those biochemistry lessons in chromatography. Involvement in laboratory research is superior to taking a regimented lab research course. It develops problem solving skills as there are no solutions available till you figure it out.

I believe that undergraduate research mentored by graduate students is a great way to synergize undergraduate and graduate education. Whichever arena you chose to work in with your graduate degree, mentoring will always be an integral part of being a leader. Mentoring promotes independence, helps you become a team-player, and makes you appreciate different perspectives to solving a problem. It can help also with self-esteem issues that often manifest as ‘imposter syndrome’.

I have forged life-long friendships in this process. I was pleasantly surprised to get a call from one of my mentees (now in medical school) for guidance regarding a scientific review he is currently working on. I was the first one he thought of!

Do I want to go back in time and decide to go to grad school again? Yes! But not without my undergrads!

Image Credit: Republica

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