Mosaic of Learning | The daunting first experience in research

Mosaic of Learning is a biweekly blog that takes a look at research and education at the University.

By Khushi Rai, For The Pitt News

Many pre-health and pre-graduate school students know that participating in research during undergraduate years is a must.

A journal publishing your research during undergraduate years is a great help when applying to graduate school. Coming into college, the term “research” can seem so broad. Granted, there are many resources online to help navigate through the maze of research in college, but none will actually be able to depict what it really is like.

Will you find it enjoyable? What type of research should you participate in? Do you have the proper experience to apply for research positions? Most of these questions have to be answered yourself. Online pre-health gurus cannot do it for you.

It seems like before you even have time to answer these questions, everyone else has already figured them out and are on their way to getting published. When I entered college, I was in the same boat. I remember being knee-deep in LinkedIn, looking at students’ participation in research and feeling endless amounts of confusion. I knew I wanted to gain exposure in research — I just did not know how to go about doing so. Emailing principal investigators seemed daunting because I did not have any previous research experience. But then again, how was I going to get research experience without reaching out to a principal investigator? The whole process seemed like a paradox.

To my surprise, there are many classes offered at the University that serve as a perfect gateway into research. A particular class that piqued my interest was Viral Genomes, a subset of Foundations of Biology Research Laboratory 2 (BIOSC 0067). The course centers around research that principal investigator Graham Hatfull and his lab are conducting with other researchers worldwide. They engineered bacteriophages for a patient that contracted Mycobacterium abscessus, a bacterium that introduces an antibiotic-resistant infection. Consequently, the Hatfull Lab designed a personalized phage therapy treatment for the patient.

In Viral Genomes, students work on annotating genes that will later be published for researchers to use. It is safe to say that this class does not include busy work. Besides learning the bioinformatics that goes along with annotating genes, students also learn pipetting and other wet lab skills. I believe that classes like these are a great exposure into what research looks like.

Laboratory courses do not have to be tied to a research laboratory at the University. Many labs that majors and graduate schools require teach skills that are necessary for research work. For example, the general chemistry laboratory that is both a pre-medical requirement and a general chemistry course requirement is a great exposure for research skills.

Another interesting fact that I found out when I entered college was that a lot of professors carry out research laboratories outside of class. Therefore, taking a class that seems fascinating and demonstrating interest to the professor could lead to a spot in the research laboratory. Obviously, you would have to speak to the professor about doing this but it’s worth a try.

I think it is most beneficial to take these specific courses in a research area that you might be interested in. When you do join a laboratory, you will already have some background knowledge in the field you are working in and will spend your time fine-tuning your skills to what the laboratory is working with specifically.

The most popular method that many undergraduate students implement is sending out dozens of emails to principal investigators and praying that one responds back. If you do not want to wait to take laboratory or lecture courses to gain exposure and want to jumpstart, this could be the method for you. However, it will require a lot of outside learning so you understand the experiments taking place in the laboratory.

I personally believe that everyone should participate in research during their undergraduate years. Not only does it teach useful skills, but it fills you with an endless feeling of self-accomplishment. All work matters greatly in a laboratory.

Khushi writes about research, education and events taking place at Pitt. Talk to her at [email protected].