Dread going to lab? Perhaps it's time to switch!
By Stephanie Wang
[Republished from 11/01/2011]
"This research topic doesn’t seem to interest me."
"I feel like I am not getting much guidance and support in this lab."
"Going to lab just isn’t enjoyable for me anymore."
You’re struggling in your relationship with your lab. There’s no passion, no excitement. All you’re feeling is a sense of being tied down and of being forced to do menial tasks with no end in sight. It might be that the subject of your research no longer tickles the science nerd in you or that your lab community isn’t the nurturing place that can bring you closer to your life goals. Whatever it is, suddenly, you realize that this lab isn’t a good fit for you. It’s a signal for a lab breakup.
This is not something you necessarily conclude overnight. I came to the realization myself earlier this semester, as a junior. Even though I worked on a particular project for a whole semester and part of a summer, my relationship with my research was falling apart. It became apparent to me as I met with my principal investigator (PI) during the first week of school and talked with him about spending more time in the lab this year. Imagining my life with a large chunk of it spent in lab only made me feel dread and apprehension: It was a sign.
In addition, although my PI, a highly intelligent and quirky guy, was more than willing to support my work in his lab, he was not as excited to support me as a person. From the laboratory grapevine, I came to understand that he looks down upon the MD degree, seeing it as a cop-out to the far superior PhD. I would always approach him with fear if it ever came down to being honest with him about my future career.
Yet, what finally got me was not being able to pursue the aging project that had enticed me into joining the lab in the first place. It had never been my plan to study tail-anchored protein insertion into the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). The ER project was only supposed to be a stepping stone for another project about aging’s effects on protein misfolding. Apparently, though, the aging endeavor still lacked focus, and my PI was adamant about giving me a thesis question that could be clearly and feasibly answerable in the next year and a half. I understood his logic, but knew I would be miserable if I spent even more time studying protein insertion pathways into the smooth ER.
"For me, switching [labs] was the best option. However, as a junior, was I too late? Over and over again, I was told, 'Not at all!'"
Comic by Julia Tartaglia
I was so frustrated at the idea of working on ER proteins that I completely forgot about my freedom to search for a new lab until later on in my junior fall. Realizing this was a huge step for me to remedying the unhealthy relationship I was developing with my research. This is not to say that you should immediately switch labs upon feeling unsatisfied with your project. It is best to first ask your PI if there are possible projects that you can switch into that suit your interests more. For example, I talked with another member of the ER lab about his project on aging first before approaching entirely new labs in order to see if there was anything that interested me in the lab I was already working with. Unfortunately, I was told that the aging project was still very preliminary and that there was a chance I may not move forward in the one and a half years I have left of college. If, like me, there are no other projects suitable for your interests, then there is more reason to begin considering a new lab.
For me, switching was the best option. However, as a junior, was I too late? Over and over again, I was told, “Not at all!” Doing research is a huge time commitment— it is like a relationship in many ways. Sometimes you love it, sometimes it’s frustrating, but overall, it should be rewarding and you should ultimately be passionate about the topic you delve into. If you find that you’re in a destructive cycle of anxiety or disinterest, I’m here to tell you that there is a way out!
So, if you’re in the same situation I was in, the question you might be asking yourself now is, how do I go about finding a new lab after having had a history with another? Or, if you have never done research and would like to begin, how do I start a relationship with research at Harvard?
[Republished from 11/15/2011]
By Stephanie Wang
You are single. Open. Interested.
Yet, no one in the research community knows this yet.
It is up to you to make the first step.
What to look for in a potential Primary Investigator!
In Part One: Lab Drama and The Breakup, I explained the importance of finding a lab that you are passionate about, and how to break up with a lab that isn't "Mr. Right," so to speak. Now that you're single, it is time to start looking for a lab that is a good fit for you. Finding a laboratory is a fun and exciting process. College is a place in which you have the freedom and opportunity to study almost any topic you can think of, from chemistry and physics to biology and engineering. Here are some tips to help you get started on your search.
1. How do I know what labs to contact?
Perhaps a better question is, what is your purpose for doing research during college? Is it because you can’t get enough of a particular scientific topic and want to learn more? Would you prefer a fast-paced, cutting edge lab setting, or rather a smaller, slow-paced environment? Are you looking to delve deep into a specific topic or to dabble in several projects? Do you want to gain the skills to one day go into industry or head your own lab? Is it just for the experience? Or is it a springboard for medical school? Consider your intentions before beginning your search for a new lab. By doing so, you may be able to narrow your search to better suit your own needs.
2. I want my lab to be tall, handsome, outgoing… and involved in the synthesis of new cancer drugs.
Some people come into college knowing exactly what scientific topics they wish to pursue. They can easily do a search on faculty in their field of interest and pinpoint a particular one they want to work with.
By Stephanie Wang
[Reposted from 12/03/2011]
From the Lab Love Guru:
The more enthusiastic you are about your research topic, the better experience you will have.
I found a few professors whose research is interesting (see Part Two: The Lab Dating Scene): Now what?
First, it is important to verify that you do want to work in one of your found laboratories. A good initial step to take is to visit the lab website and read up on everything posted there. Look for links to biographies of the principal investigators (PI) and tabs that direct you to their lab website. You should be able to find out about the techniques that the lab uses on a regular basis and get a better sense of the current focus of the lab. Doing so will also be helpful when expressing your interest in the lab [see next step].
Another helpful way to see what questions the PI is currently investigating is to read one or two of his/her recently published papers. Some PI’s also place links to some of their papers on their websites. If not, the Scientista Foundation suggests doing a basic article search on Google Scholar. There are also useful databases that are field-specific: PubMed, created by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, is a great database and resource for biology-related articles. Type any PI’s name into the search engine, and links to abstracts and PDFs of all his/her papers will appear. Often, your campus will allow you to access these databases for free if you log in through your student portal. For math, computer science, physics, and statistics papers, Cornell University provides a service called arXiv.
Do you want to perform organic syntheses in a trial-and-error process to synthesize new molecules? Are PCRs and Western Blotting techniques that you want to learn? Or does computer modeling of the drug delivery process just sound like a chore? If the labs you have chosen are still on your radar, read on.
I could see myself working with so-and-so on _____! How should I express my desire to do research under him/her?
The next step is to write a letter of interest to the PI of the lab. One way to think about the letter of interest is to imagine it as being a love letter. From beginning to end, the major goal of your letter is to express how you are genuinely interested in the PI’s area of research and/or what they trying to attain through this research. You are “in love” with what they love! Let’s start from the beginning.
Paragraph 1. Introduction
Begin your letter with a simple “Dear Professor So-and-So,” and then introduce yourself. What year are you and what do you major in (or are planning to major in)? Next, state why you are writing—what fuels your interest for this particular professor’s research? Don’t be timid. It is much better if you lean towards being overly enthusiastic!
It is good to note here that writing lab-specific letters of interest makes a huge difference. Although you may be contacting four or five labs, try to make each email personal—professors can tell when you are recycling a standard letter being sent out to a few of his/her colleagues (Especially if you forget to change the name of the professor within the body of the letter!)
Paragraph 2. Body
The bulk of the letter should be devoted to three things: 1. a more detailed description of what you find particularly interesting about the lab’s research, drawing from your background reading, 2. what previous research experience you’ve had, if any; and 3. linking doing research to your own goals.
For the first component, this is a further incentive to read a few of your PI’s recently published papers. By mentioning specific aspects of the laboratory’s research, you can show the PI that your interest in them is genuine and moreover, that you are proactive and independent—characteristics that are important for researchers.
Next, discussing previous experience with research can give the PI an idea of what sort of research question you can tackle and who he/she might pair you up with, should you continue on to do research with the lab. Mention specific techniques as well as what sort of labs you have worked in. However, know that previous experience is not necessary to do research in college! Most faculty are more than willing to take on students with absolutely no research experience as long as they are motivated to learn.
Lastly, say a little about what you want to gain from doing research during college as well as your future plans. Are you planning to make this lab your thesis lab? Or is this just a way for you to get your feet wet? What are your career plans and how does research now fit in to them?
Paragraph 3. Closing
Before you end your letter, let the professor know about when you would like to start research as well as how much time you can devote during the academic year (and whether you are planning to devote any of your summers to doing research).
A last important component to your email is an attached file: your resume. The CV you submitted to colleges as a high school senior is not the one you want to attach, rather, you should format this resume such that it has a definite science orientation. A good example can be found here: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic83478.files/annotated_resume.pdf. Keep the resume to only a page, with high school non-science achievements limited to only two or three.
You’re done! Send off your emails and wait for a response, giving the PI about a week.
[originally published 01/02/12]
By Stephanie Wang
Learn how to make a great impression when you go in to meet the lab!
In Part Three: Love Letters to Labs, you learned how to send the perfect interest letter. After having written and sent an email of interest to a few PIs, sit back, relax, and wait for responses. Don’t be discouraged if none respond back immediately. It is important to understand that these professors, who head laboratories, teach classes, and have lives of their own, are usually quite busy and have hundreds of emails entering their inboxes every day. I would generally give about a week to ten days for a PI to respond. If he or she still hasn’t gotten back to you, do not be afraid to be persistent.
This is one thing I learned while contacting Amy Wagers, the PI of the stem cell lab I work in now. I was extremely interested in Wagers’ aging research, yet she didn’t initially respond to my enthusiastic letter. I waited an entire week and a half, nervously, before sending another email reminding her of my interest. This happened again as we corresponded, and each time I sent her a reminder email to meet with her, I felt guilty for being the annoying undergrad, waving furiously in the background to get a renowned PI’s attention. However, as I learned from my academic advisor, it is the PI’s responsibility to at least give you an answer to your request for a position in his/her lab, whether it is yes, I can take you or no, I do not have space. Later, Amy would tell me that that particular week had been extremely busy, both in the lab and in terms of her personal life. After having written and sent an email of interest to a few PIs, sit back, relax, and wait for responses. Don’t be discouraged if none respond back immediately. It is important to understand that these professors, who head laboratories, teach classes, and have lives of their own, are usually quite busy and have hundreds of emails entering their inboxes every day. I would generally give about a week to ten days for a PI to respond. If he or she still hasn’t gotten back to you, do not be afraid to be persistent.
This is one thing I learned while contacting Amy Wagers, the PI of the stem cell lab I work in now. I was extremely interested in Wagers’ aging research, yet she didn’t initially respond to my enthusiastic letter. I waited an entire week and a half, nervously, before sending another email reminding her of my interest. This happened again as we corresponded, and each time I sent her a reminder email to meet with her, I felt guilty for being the annoying undergrad, waving furiously in the background to get a renowned PI’s attention. However, as I learned from my academic advisor, it is the PI’s responsibility to at least give you an answer to your request for a position in his/her lab, whether it is yes, I can take you or no, I do not have space. Later, Amy would tell me that that particular week had been extremely busy, both in the lab and in terms of her personal life.
Tip: Attend a lab meeting to see if you fit in!
A PI responded to my letter of interest and wants to meet with me! How do I make a good first impression?
Great! Depending on the size of the lab, you may or may not be meeting the actual PI of the lab. If a lab is particularly big, the PI may have delegated you to meet a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow instead. Don’t feel slighted by this; it’s very typical that in large laboratories, the PI rarely has time to develop relationships with those who work in his/her lab. Either way, the interviewer will likely explain the details of the research project that is currently of interest to him/her as well as the expectations that he or she has for you. Prepare an answer to why you are interested in their lab in particular. Read up on one or two of the publications—knowledge of their current work will come in handy during the conversation. On the other hand, also prepare some questions you’d like answers to from the lab.
Some things you may want to know about before making a decision to join a lab are:
1. What are the time commitments for working in the lab during the school year? What about during the summer?
2. Tell me about an average day in the lab.
3. Are you interested in mentoring a thesis project? (This question is for those desiring to pursue a thesis in the future).
4. Do you have any other expectations?
The interviewer may also give you a tour of the lab. Thus, the first meeting is a time for you to see whether or not your interests line up with the labs’ and also to imagine yourself working there (for many long hours!).
Another recommendation I have is to listen in on a lab meeting. These often happen once a week, usually at the beginning of the day. Usually, lab members sit around a table, sharing and updating the entire group on lab issues, as well as hearing about each others’ research. Sitting in on a meeting will give you a sense of the lab dynamic. Do you see yourself fitting in? It’s also a great way to meet the rest of the lab.
At this point, the decision is up to you! Remember, as an undergraduate researcher, being in a laboratory requires commitment and sacrifice—much time must be reserved for research that could be spent doing other activities. Choosing a lab can be a difficult process, but ultimately, once a good match has been made, both parties benefit, much to everyone’s satisfaction. Choose wisely, follow your passions, and know that enjoying your research experience involves not only the science at hand but also good relationships with those in the lab.
Beginning a new relationship is always exciting, and starting a relationship with your research is no different. I wish you luck in all your scientific endeavors!
Image obtained from http://mgonline.com.
I remember learning about niches in fifth grade. It was in relation to squirrels—fuzzy critters that managed to enjoy eating and planting acorns for a living. That was their niche, their place in the forest ecosystem. Other animals and plants filled the rest of the forest space in a beautiful, interweaving tapestry of needs presented and needs met. Nowadays, I think of Harvard Yard squirrels satisfying the curiosities of camera-wielding tourists—quite a different type of niche, yet an entertaining one for sure.
This summer, I learned laboratory techniques such as performing surgeries on the legs of mice, running them on mouse-sized treadmills, using FACS (Fluorescence-Activated Cell Sorting) to sort muscle stem cells, and doing EMSAs (Electrophoretic Mobility Shift Assays). I became a pro at Western Blotting and Western Blot exposing, and I spent dozens of hours at microscopes and in front of computers, counting cell colonies and determining the area of myofibers. I liked the in vivo work I was doing and have found the independence of laboratory research to be truly exciting.
As an undergraduate, one of the best things that a lab can give you is good mentorship, whether it is from a principal investigator (PI), a graduate student, or a postdoctoral fellow. After joining the Wagers Lab, I was lucky enough to be paired with Juhyun (Julie) Oh. Julie is currently a rising G4, meaning she’ll be entering her fourth year of graduate school this upcoming academic year. Julie is in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) program through Harvard Medical School and specializes in the subfield of Translational Medicine.
The undergraduates in the Wagers Lab joke that our PI, Amy Wagers, is an incredible matchmaker. Each match between grad student/postdoctoral fellow and undergraduate has gone exceedingly well, and I can’t say any less about my match with Julie!
This past week, I was able to interview Julie about her experiences with research. I found her responses to be both encouraging and enlightening, and hope you may glean some kernels of wisdom from them as well!
The best thing about research is that each day is your own, each slightly different, full of potential and possibility.
I have a monthly calendar, just sheets of paper I printed out from the Internet, and it gives me great pleasure to plan ahead, projecting new experiments and reanalyzing my main goals and the many steps needed to reach them. These tentative plans change with the accumulation of new data, and that, too, is exciting.
This summer, I am pursuing full-time research in the Wagers Lab. It hasn't been easy, but it has been such an exciting journey thus far. I'd love to share with you an example of a day in my life, the life of a premed doing her thesis research in a stem cell laboratory. Enjoy!
This past Tuesday...
I walk through the door that connects the third floor of Bauer to Sherman Fairchild several times a week, but only today, did I notice the sign. Originally, it had read "One Glove," and I followed suit (no pun intended), making sure to strip my right hand of its protective outerwear before touching the door handle. However, someone recently had crossed out the G in Glove. Reading the sign this time around, I was filled with a heartwarming (also no pun intended!) sense of peace.
For, isn't it true? There is one love that is shared by all of us that touch this door handle. One love of research, of biology, of discovery. One love that ties each researcher in Bauer and Sherman Fairchild to the rest of the scientific community, time zones away, oceans away. One love that captures each of our hearts and spurs us onward in an exhilarating chase for knowledge.
What a handy sign.
That pun was intended.
Although this blog has been up and running for a while, I've never dedicated a blogpost to officially introducing myself. I'm glad to be reminded to do so at the start of a new summer blog series that I've decided to entitle "Experimenting With the Life of a Scientist(a)." I'll be living the life of a researcher this summer, going to lab full-time, five, sometimes six days a week in search for potential mechanisms behind muscle aging. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Let's start from the beginning.
Just two days ago, humid Boston almost hit the nineties. Yes, summer is finally here!
A seagull at Revere Beach.
As a freshman, I had no idea what I wanted to do during my first college summer. As everyone began making plans, I frantically began applying to programs that I thought would be helpful for a future career in science. Luckily, I made it into a research program through the FAS Systems Biology department as a summer intern.
Yet, I admit now, as a rising senior, that I didn't make the most of my freshman summer. Despite being able to participate in fascinating research on misfolded proteins, I didn't spend much time with my family during our three-month break, something that my homesick heart had been yearning to do all year. In an effort to beef up my resume and do something "useful," I sacrificed an important internal need. The next year, as a sophomore, I decided to find work a bit closer to home so that I could enjoy the limited, precious time there was with those I loved.
This comes a bit late when most folks already have their summer plans in order. However, if parts of your summer are still in the air, I would recommend thinking about why you are doing what you plan to do. By choosing to do one activity, you sacrifice another. On one hand, the summer is the perfect time to do research, allowing for full-time immersion and a small glimpse into the life of a graduate student. On the other hand, beware of burn-out!
Let yourself relax this summer and enjoy the good weather and good company. College is short, and there will never be another time like it!
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About the Blogger
Stephanie M. Wang is a Chemical and Physical Biology major at Harvard College, Class of 2013. She is a pre-med who just can't get enough of the hard sciences. She loves learning new things, frisbee, poetry, every kind of apple, people. Stephanie blogs regularly for the Scientista Foundation: Find her blog here!
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