Ready, Set, Grow! Confessions of a pre-med student performing undergraduate research

As a campus tour guide, I get to interact with high schoolers considering spending four years (and lots of money) at the University of Georgia. When I ask if any prospective students are  interested in conducting undergraduate science research, more often than not, I’m met with confused looks rather than eagerly raised hands.

Four years ago, I was once one of these high school students: someone who had no idea what scientific research was, or why I should get involved. Yet I’ve learned that one of the biggest advantages of being at a large research institution is that undergraduates have ample opportunities to get involved with on campus research.

For example, this past academic year (2017-2018), myself and 574 of my peers presented our faculty-sponsored research projects at the annual Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) Symposium. This was the largest number of undergraduate researchers participating in university history, a trend that has continued over the last few years  – Dawgs break records both in and out of the classroom (can I get a “Go dawgs”)!

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Drs. Burke and Masalia with the author at the 2018 CURO Symposium. Photo Credit: Dr. Rishi Masalia

So how did this pre-med, Nutrition Science and Music student end up spending two years researching sunflowers and drought? Well, in 2016, I stumbled into Dr. John Burke’s plant biology lab to get some quick research experience to bolster my medical school application and because my friend recommended it. Little did I know it would become a cornerstone of my college career.

Getting out of my comfort zone and taking on projects in a field I was unfamiliar with truly allowed me to grow – I’d even say that there was more personal growth than plant growth over these two years!

Looking back, research has become such a valuable experience for me that I’d recommend it to any student interested in the sciences.

Looking back, research has become such a valuable experience for me that I’d recommend it to any student interested in the sciences. I realize the process of both finding research opportunities and learning how to “science” can be daunting, but I promise research is not only worthwhile – it’s doable. If you’re an undergraduate thinking about pursuing scientific research then listen up, this sunflower-growing, medical school acceptee is about to drop some advice. I’m no yoda, but experienced I am, and ready you are.

Patience is a virtue.

I knew nothing about plants when I began research, so the learning curve was mighty steep – as it is in any research lab. Labs are built on specific projects and require highly individualized skill sets, making the sheer volume of information I had to somehow absorb overwhelming. Safely on the other side, I can admit that nobody aces a new topic overnight. Reaching out to my graduate mentors (and Youtube) for help was the best way for me to start understanding not only the science behind the projects, but why we were even researching this topic in the first place.

Don’t blindly accept knowledge – think critically:

Reaching out to my mentors helped me learn, but of course this guided path was also accompanied by an extensive list of academic articles to supplement my learning. At first, those papers were nothing more than a nauseating maze of jumbo jargon. I once counted a word in a title that was 16 letters long – that’s more than half the alphabet people!

Now two years later, when I read these papers I can quickly discern the relevant information and even come up with my own follow-up questions because my mind has been rewired to analyze and critically think about what I’m learning and reading. By extension, I’ve now applied these skills to all incoming information, allowing me to question what I see in the news/social media everyday. Trust me, I have visited many a scientific article (thanks Google Scholar) to determine whether vegan diets are actually healthier or if Yellowstone is really going to blow.

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Example page from a scientific paper. Photo Credit: Liana Mosley

Sit down, be humble.

Patience and critical thinking will help you get the research content down. Now it’s time to start getting your hands dirty (quite literally, if you’re in a plant biology lab). In the beginning, undergraduate researchers are generally assigned anything considered grunt work. For me, this included growing, measuring, cleaning, and root-washing. If you’re unfamiliar with the act of root-washing, let me paint you a picture: imagine standing on an uneven surface, hunched over a leaking hose spraying a spaghetti-like nest of sunflower roots over a grate that’s scratching at your legs. You try to work out the sand and debris entangled in the roots without damaging the tissue itself – at noon, in the sun, in Georgia, in summer.

Though this task was a humbling experience to say the least, for me it was a good lesson in perseverance. Perseverance goes far beyond root-washing as well, whether that’s pipetting hundreds of samples, writing papers, or constantly revising posters, these responsibilities allowed me to appreciate the tough (and sometimes very physical) work researchers go through on a daily basis. I may have spent hours sweating in the heat or revisiting a thesis, but there is a sense of personal pride when you endure through the #struggle and have something to show for it.

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A root post wash. Photo Credit: Andries Temme

In the wise, filtered words of Forrest Gump, “Ish happens.

Speaking of struggles, research also teaches you to be flexible. For the first three months of my latest research semester, we did not have the materials (seeds in our case) we needed to carry out a particular experiment. Calm under pressure, we reworked our original question to adjust for the resources at hand while still maintaining an informative and interesting research question.

It doesn’t matter which lab you’re in, there’s always going to be some roadblock to work around, anything from funding, missing materials, or even a statistical program gone wrong… the list goes on, but so must the show! It’s our duty as scientists to come up with creative solutions and being open to new/alternative ideas helps us problem-solve.

Bloom where you’re planted

I’ve always resonated with the old adage “Bloom where you’re planted.” I believe that anyone can find happiness and success wherever they end up and this saying couldn’t be more applicable to my involvement in plant biology research. I may not have known anything about plants or agriculture coming in, but because I was excited to learn and willing to work I have had  many opportunities present themselves during these past two years. Whether that was presenting my results at a conference, talking confidently about research during medical school interviews, or “acting out” research for an official UGA ad, this experience has opened many doors for me.

Moreover, you get out of research what you put into it – so if there are aspects of the experience you want, don’t be afraid to create your own opportunities —  ask your mentors and go for it!

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Just trying to bloom over here. Photo Credit: Amrish Nair

Honey, you’re home!

It can be intimidating to break boundaries, but those boundaries are mostly self-imposed because we’re too afraid to ask, or too afraid of failure. Always remember that working in a lab is a two-way street, you chose them and they chose you. You’re a curious mind, and have something more to offer than a pair of hands for grunt work, or root-washing in my case.  

Make sure to choose a lab that feeds into your curiosity, one that will invest in you as a scientist and as a person.

Make sure to choose a lab that feeds into your curiosity, one that will invest in you as a scientist and as a person. The people I’ve gotten to know through research have changed my life with their insight, advice, and friendship; I’m tremendously grateful for everything they’ve done for me. Search for those relationships, find the people you want to nerd out with.

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The Burke Lab 2018. Photo Credit: John Burke

Just do it.

Whether you hear about it on your campus tour, stumble into a lab, or are actively looking for a project on an issue you’ve been passionate about for years, research is here, and it’s helpful. In the words of Nike (or Shia Labeouf), just do it! It doesn’t matter if you want to be a professional scientist or not, we all have a thirst for knowledge and you can start quenching yours by getting involved in undergraduate research. Will you cure cancer? Maybe. Will you find a family in your lab group? Probably. Will you grow? Definitely.

rishi6Liana Mosley received a B.S. in Nutrition Science from the University of Georgia in 2018. During her time at UGA, she was an undergraduate research assistant in the Burke lab, sang with the Hodgson Singers, and was a campus tour guide for the UGA Visitors Center. Though she’ll miss UGA (and especially calling the dawgs from the student section), she is excited to attend the Medical College of Georgia in the Fall! For more information, contact her at mosleylia@gmail.com. More from Liana Mosley.