As the weather gets warmer and summer gets closer, a lot of people’s minds are on their upcoming summer research internships. I know from my personal experience that doing research over the summer can be quite frustrating — it seems like you’ll never get any results and it’s so easy to say that “research just isn’t my thing.” In this post, I want to highlight a few things to think about before you decide that pursuing research as a profession isn’t for you.
- Try to actively understand why your supervisor is doing their research. What are their motivations? What questions did they propose?
It’s really easy to feel incompetent in the laboratory, especially as an undergraduate student; it’s very likely that you don’t have too much independence, and it may feel like you’re just doing what your supervisor asks you to do. That’s why it’s particularly important to try to understand the background of the research so that you have more of a personal investment to the problem in question.
When I worked on molecular biology research this past summer, it was really easy to get lost in the specificity of the subject matter (I was working on developing “a new CRISPR/Cas9 delivery system for treatment of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy” — you get the idea.) I developed a more personal connection to the research topic by actually reading some case studies and watching videos that explained Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. I also asked my mentor why he was passionate about this topic.
- What does your supervisor expect of you during this internship?
It’s very likely that your supervisor doesn’t expect you to get results in just the two or three months that you’re working at an internship. In many cases, they just want you to get a better sense of what research can be like. Know that you aren’t “bad” at research if you don’t get results in your short internships — Ph.D. programs take years for a reason!
- Are there other experiments that could answer the research question at hand? Does the procedure and purpose of the research make sense?
In many cases, your supervisor will probably give you concrete experiments and procedures to do, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the initiative to think of and propose your own experiments too. During my summer internship, I asked my mentor if I could get experience working with a specific type of stem cell that I was particularly interested in. My mentor hadn’t originally planned on working with those stem cells, but together, we came up with an experiment to integrate them and it ended up being a crucial part of the final presentation I gave at the end of the summer internship.
Another lesson that I learned is to ask questions if you think that a certain experiment doesn’t make sense! During my internship, my mentor accidentally gave me the wrong reagent for the experiment — the reagent cut up the DNA that I had replicated in jagged pieces, instead of cutting it up in clean pieces, like I wanted. Since the remainder of the experiment required the cleanly cut pieces of DNA, I had to throw away the results that I had collected over two weeks! I still think back to that day and think “if only I had checked the reagent name instead of blindly trusting my mentor…”
- Your experience in the laboratory is limited to a few months. Have you asked fellow lab members why they decided to pursue research? Why did they decide to do research there, on this topic?
I asked my mentor over the summer about what he considered to be the most common misconception about laboratory research, and he told me that a lot of people considered research to be a lonely profession, but that it’s actually very social. A lot of people talk about the lab environment, or the people that are in the laboratory, as a crucial part of their research experience — take the time to get to know your fellow laboratory members.
If, after all these steps, you’re still not sure whether you want to pursue research, that’s okay. Take the time to reflect on your experience and think about other professions. Here’s a post written by another PCUR correspondent on what she learned from her summer research internship. I personally decided that as much as I enjoy research, I imagine my future self better as a physician. I knew that I wanted to make a difference in as many lives as I could, and I felt that becoming a physician would better help me realize that goal. Additionally, I feel incredibly inspired every time I shadow a physician. Don’t get me wrong – I still love research, but I’m interested in research because of its clinical applications.
If you decided that you are interested in research, that’s wonderful! You’re well on your way!
Just a final note for everyone: your summer research internship shouldn’t be a means to an end — it should be an end in and of itself. You’re spending so much of your precious time to experience it; get the most that you can get out of it!
—Nanako Shirai, Natural Sciences Correspondent