45 Days in the Life of a Researcher: An Invaluable Summer

The developmental social neuroscience lab studies how neural changes promote social, emotional, and cognitive development

As early as November of my freshman year, I remember hearing conversations around campus about summer plans. These conversations were not about the anticipation of vacation and relaxation, but rather the frantic and stressful search for the perfect summer opportunity to pad their resumes. It was safe to say that I was freaking out.

But this pressure motivated me to learn about my options, which ultimately allowed me to further explore my interests and participate in an incredibly rewarding research opportunity. After many meetings with my amazing academic advisers and career advisers at Career Services, I secured a position as a research assistant at a developmental neuroscience lab at UNC Chapel Hill.

This position consisted of nine consecutive weeks of unpaid, nine to five workdays, and the occasional shift on evenings and weekends. Sound draining? Yes, but I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work. But what was so enlightening about the experience was the fact that I actually enjoyed doing the work. I found something I was passionate about and I had the opportunity to engage with it every single day.

The first day was a blur—meeting everyone in the lab, getting familiar with the lab space, moving into my office (my own office!!!), and running around campus collecting my various parking permits and ID badges. After taking care of these logistical details, I hit the ground running.

I quickly learned that psychology and neuroscience research is much more than just running experiments and collecting data. On any given day, I could be working on recruiting lab participants, preparing aspects of the experiments, scheduling and running experiment sessions, entering data, coding data, and everything in between—including weekly runs to the only dining hall on campus that was open during the summer to steal the lab’s weekly ration of plastic utensils. And by week two I felt completely comfortable. I knew my coworkers, how to get to the labs on campus,  how to unlock my finicky office door, and not to put my lunch box in the fridge where we stored spit samples.

But above and beyond the practical skills that I got out of my summer research, the most valuable part of the process was the ability to experience “a day in the life,” or really 45 days in the life of a neuroscience researcher. I am involved in a psychology lab on campus, and while working there a few hours a week has been rewarding, it doesn’t beat the full-time lab immersion experience that I had over the summer. My internship revealed to me the true inner workings of neuroscience research—a behind the scenes look that I couldn’t get from just 2-hour snippets in my lab on campus. An extended summer opportunity is more than another line on your resume, it’s a chance to be introspective about how you enjoy spending your time. I like spending time at the lab on campus, but it’s only two hours at a time and paid. After spending eight hours a day at the lab this summer without getting paid and still loving it—that’s an incredibly validating experience

So, in the end, I am grateful that those nervous conversations about summer opportunities pushed me to engage in such a valuable experience. I have come out of this summer confident in pursuing neuroscience research as a career. I couldn’t find this confidence just from learning course material, I had to get in the lab and try it out—a unique trial run of my future.

Summer is a special time without the usual overload of classes and extracurriculars that allows you to deeply explore existing passions or discover new ones. If you have the opportunity to, use that time to immerse yourself in something, be it research or otherwise. Whether you love it, or find out it’s not for you, you will have learned something valuable about yourself and the many possibilities in your future.

— Ellie Breitfeld, Natural Sciences Correspondent