The Project That Made Me a Researcher: (No?) Lab Coat Required

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will explain how they found their place in research. We present these to you as a series called The Project That Made Me a Researcher. As any undergraduate knows, the transition from ‘doing a research project’ to thinking of yourself as a researcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Jalisha shares her story.


Tons of research is conducted in the Psychology/Neuroscience building, but you seldomly see anyone wearing a lab coat!
Tons of research is conducted in the Psychology/Neuroscience building, but you seldom see anyone wearing a lab coat!

White lab coats. As a freshman in high school, I believed these to be the quintessential markings of a true researcher. My transition into the world of research, then, occurred during the summer after my first year of high school, when I wore my very own lab coat for the first time.

That summer, I participated in the Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program, a program charged with the mission of encouraging young minorities to pursue careers in STEM fields. I was assigned to work with a microbiology professor in her lab, where I would assist with research on the presence of harmful bacteria in store-bought lunchmeat. I had nothing more than my high school biology experience for credentials, but with my white lab coat on, I felt prepared for anything.

Each day in the microbiology lab I learned a new skill that fit my naïve description of what research was: I made liquid solutions of lunchmeat products, plated the solutions using pipettes and spreaders, and observed my plated solutions through microscopes. While I enjoyed the experience of being a prototypical researcher, however, not everything about working in microbiology excited me. I was easily made nauseous by the various chemical fumes of the lab, and found myself spending as much time as possible outside of the lab to avoid the smells. I also found much of the experimental set-up to be monotonous, and quickly grew tired of plating solutions on the regular. By the end of the summer I felt extremely conflicted: I loved the idea of knowledge-seeking through research, but disliked many of the actions involved in what I believed to be the only type of research in existence. Fortunately, my advisor on the project was extremely open-minded and encouraged me to pursue research in other areas.

By the time I was a junior in high school, I had developed a strong interest in studying the brain, and was ready to try my hand at research once again. With the help of my advisor from the microbiology lab, I contacted a researcher in the neuroscience department of Delaware State University about the opportunity to conduct research in her lab. My research that summer investigated the role of various chemicals in the development of the neonatal rat brain, a topic I found to be interesting, though surprisingly similar to my experience in the microbiology lab in regards to the strong fumes and the necessity for white lab coats. I did, however, enjoy learning about the anatomy of the brain and felt passionate about exploring that topic in more depth. Inspired by my previous research experiences to explore research in other domains, I began my first year at Princeton looking for a lab that felt right for me.

Walking into the lab for the first time, I was completely taken aback: there were no lab benches, no pipettes or autoclaves; not a single white lab coat was in sight.

My freshman year at Princeton, I agreed to work as a research assistant in the lab of psychology professor Andrew Conway. Walking into the lab for the first time, I was completely taken aback: there were no lab benches, no pipettes or autoclaves; not a single white lab coat was in sight. Instead, the room was full of desktop computers, all with psychological paradigms downloaded on them for experimental testing. “This is research?” I thought to myself as I was introduced to tasks like the Wisconsin Card Sorting Paradigm. The more I learned about the various tasks used for testing human cognition, the more I realized that psychological research was what was right for me. Everything I loved about research was there- the knowledge seeking, the experimental design- but without the fumes and lab coats. I fell in love with researching in the field of psychology, and have now decided to pursue psychology research as a career.

Although I consider my first research experience the project that made me a researcher, long gone are my days of mixing chemicals and plating solutions. Now, my research involves using cognitive paradigms to learn more about aspects of human cognition. Nonetheless, my first research experience has taught me a lot about what it means to be a researcher. My biggest revelation? That in my preferred field of research, no lab coats are required.

-Jalisha Braxton, Natural Sciences Correspondent