This past summer, I conducted research remotely with the Global Health Internship program in the Metcalf lab working with Dr. Marjolein Bruijning from the EEB department. While Dr. Bruijning guided me extensively throughout the project, I was given a lot of independence on the research topic I wanted to explore within the internship area of the effect of microbes on health. I have been able to continue my summer project throughout the semester, but I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my experience as a research assistant and the process of starting a project, which is becoming especially relevant as I start my Junior Independent Work. This post summarizes some of the insights I gained and the lessons I learned that I hope will be helpful in making the most out of your next research experience.
This internship was slightly different from my previous research experiences as I was given the opportunity to choose the specific topic that I wanted to investigate within the larger framework of my postdoc adviser’s work. For my other research engagements, I have generally been assigned a topic that was a part of my mentor’s research paper or thesis. However, Dr. Bruijning gave me the opportunity to think critically about how I wanted to approach the larger question of unpacking the role of the microbiome in disease. She provided me with three papers to begin my search and during our first meeting, she walked me through the key concepts and the big questions that the relatively young field of microbiome research was asking.
One piece of advice here would be to ask your adviser for a few papers to start with – these might come from the group’s work or be a foundational paper in the field, which might be harder for you to identify when you’re just starting up! Equipped with my new knowledge, I spent my first week reading the current literature and taking notes on ideas of interest to me that I later used to create project proposals. With Dr. Bruijning’s interest in vertical transmission, or the passing on of microbes from mother to child, and my own interest in pediatrics due to past personal and research experiences, our final decision for the topic of our paper was to examine how differences in vertical transmission of microbes (such as by mode of delivery and feeding of babies) play a role in the development of various early pediatric diseases.
The biggest piece of advice that I could give from this part of my experience, which also applies to those starting independent research work, would be to choose a topic that you are genuinely interested in and that is also important to the field. I found that the best place to start looking for such topics are (highly-cited) review papers that provide a broad overview of the work that is currently being done in the field. For example, one of the early review papers that I read had a summarized table of different questions at the forefront of the field and noted whether these topics have started being explored (in which case it included references) and those that have yet to be addressed. Choosing a topic that is interesting and meaningful to me made the time that I spent researching so much more enjoyable! I found that Google Scholar and Web of Science were approachable search engines to do a scan of the literature. In addition, take thorough notes that you can go back to when performing a literature review – Mendeley is a citation manager and note taking platform that I discovered this summer that could be a wonderful tool for this very purpose!
The other main piece of advice I want to share is to keep a running record of questions that you have from your reading. I would write my questions in a Word Document and bring them to my meetings with Dr. Bruijning (to echo Abhimanyu’s advice, this is another reason why regular meetings with your mentor would be beneficial!). During our meetings, Dr. Bruijning would answer any questions that she knew the answer to or give me leads to the ones she wasn’t familiar with. You may find that one of the questions you ask (no matter how simple it may be!) might be the starting point for developing a research topic. For example, one of my simplest-seeming questions was “what are the causes for necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)?”, which was one of the pediatric diseases we were investigating. However, I quickly found that physicians and scientists still do not understand the reason behind NEC and that recent research believes that microbes may be a potential cause, which was a point that played a large role in developing our hypothesis in the review paper that we are writing.
I hope that these tips were helpful for those of you who are beginning to embark on your research journey. Starting the process can be intimidating, but all the time and effort that you put in at the early stages of your research will certainly pay-off later as the background knowledge you establish and the skills you gain will come back to help as you dive deeper into the field.
— Cecilia H. Kim, Natural Sciences Correspondent