Starting New Research: How to Learn What You Don’t Know

“I don’t know what I don’t know.”

That is what I was thinking when my summer internship mentor asked me if I had any questions. Having only taken MOL214 and CBE245, I was uncertain about what research at a bioenginnering lab on campus would be like. After attending a lab meeting the first day of my internship, I was overwhelmed by all of the new information I was receiving and thought I would never understand metabolic engineering. By the end of my internship, however, I was working independently and designing my own experiments.

When beginning a new research project, particularly in a new field, getting up to speed can be challenging. But if you approach the project efficiently, you will find that this task is not as daunting as it sounds. These are a few strategies that helped me when I entered my summer internship.

Understanding complex mechanisms was challenging, but these strategies helped me along the way.

Do Some Literature Reading

To understand your research topic, you will inevitably have to do some literature reading. By this, however, I don’t mean spend several hours trying to read and understand every experiment and conclusion in numerous academic papers. Instead, read through some papers just to get a general idea of the kind of work you will be doing. Read the abstract thoroughly, skim the introduction and results, and look at diagrams carefully. You will probably identify key words and ideas related to your topic, so this will be a useful starting point when asking your mentor questions.

Ask Questions to Build on What You Already Know

After my mentor explained the things I would be working on over the summer, I only recognized polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gel electrophoresis. But instead of immediately overwhelming myself, and my mentor, with questions like “what genes must enter the metabolic pathways of yeast cells to produce desired branch chained alcohols”, I found it more useful to start with things I knew. I asked questions like “how will we use PCR and gel electrophoresis in this research?”, and I expanded my knowledge on the topic from there. Starting from a familiar point is less intimidating than tackling on your project from words and ideas that you do not understand.

Ask for Diagrams

Understanding the entire metabolic pathway of a yeast cell was not an easy task for me this summer. However, diagrams helped me make the information understandable. As my mentor was rambling about different genes, enzymes, and reactions, I asked him to draw diagrams of the different pathways and processes he was referring to. Diagrams are a great way to outline main ideas and to make connections between these ideas. Break up the diagram into smaller sections and focus on understanding one section at a time.

Present Two Answers, Not a Question

Once you have a deeper understanding of your topic, more specific questions will begin to arise. This is the point where you should expect to have a lot more questions for your mentor. But instead of presenting your mentor with a question, present him or her with two or more possible answers. When you come up with a question, think of answers to your question, and ask your mentor to guide you towards the correct one. This way, you will begin thinking about your topic critically, which will be necessary when you are further into your research. In addition, your mentor will probably comment on why your other potential answers are incorrect. Not only will this help you gain an even deeper understanding of your topic, it might also be useful information to know when more questions arise. Even if you do not think of the right answer, you will be more comfortable with your research topic after thinking about it critically.

On my first day of internship, I attended a lab meeting where I understood nothing of what was being said. After nine weeks of internship, I was working independently on experiments, identifying alternative solutions when an experiment was unsuccessful, and I even presented some of my work at a lab meeting.

When starting a new research project, it is important to be patient. It may not happen overnight, but eventually you will reach a point where you are comfortable with the subject. These strategies helped me understand my research project, and I hope you find them useful as well.

–Saira Reyes, Engineering Correspondent