Just this week, I finally wrapped up my summer internship at the Biomedical Research Center here at Michigan. To say the least, it was one of the most influential experiences of my life, in that it gave me the deepest look at the world of biomedical research. To think that earlier this past year, I had no idea what it meant to “genotype,” or what goes into immunofluorescence staining just goes to show how much an internship can open your eyes.
I am most grateful to my P.I. and the graduate students in the lab who everyday taught me something new about the techniques and biological concepts involved in outlining and then conducting certain experiments. The way my P.I., who also works as a graduate school professor of cell and developmental biology here at the University, would stay after hours to clear up any confusing concepts for me or teach me how to dissect mouse olfactory epithelium (for fun, even!), really showed me how generous this lab was. And for that I am truly so thankful. The whole experience, actually, went further than just increasing my passion for biomedical research—it made me realize that ultimately I would love to be able to teach the fundamental concepts of genetics and biochemistry to dedicated students one day.
My weekly sit-ins on practice prelims of the graduate students, thesis defenses, and lab meetings gave me a chance to see what the journey will be like to one day get to the place that the graduate students are in now. But I really am excited about it all! This school year, I will be continuing my research of the Hedgehog pathway of the mouse olfactory epithelium in the lab I am currently in. Furthermore, I may go on to take on a new project that is somehow related to neurogenesis. Through it all, it will be the literal techniques and fundamental concepts I have learned throughout this summer that will help guide me. And it is the generosity of the P.I. and graduate students that I have worked with that has without a doubt inspired me to believe in how far I can go as long as I am never afraid to ask questions, collaborate, and think beyond.
Since my last blog post, I actually accomplished an experiment I had been working on perfecting for a while, and am quite proud of–
Last month, I had been taught the processes of immunofluorescence staining (IF staining) on mouse tissue. However, the process involved is fragile in nature and the images I obtained from the staining were often not as solid and defined as I would have liked; either the mouse tissue would be slightly shifted/torn, or the antibodies would not stick onto the tissue for whatever reason. Because IF staining is somewhat of a long and tedious process, such “failure” had been both frustrating and disappointing to me. However, finally, last week I was able to obtain beautiful images of antibody-stained tissue. For me, such an accomplishment was symbolic because it gave me a good sense of what it means to go into the biomedical research field. Research involves constant retrials, errors, and failures before reaching successes. Yet being able to persevere while problem-solving are facets that are extremely necessary in the field. Thus, finally obtaining those IF images was a truly proud moment of mine this summer.
Further, because of this internship this summer, I was able to more confidently see that this field is one in which I want to pursue. There is still so much data that is needed to be collected for the questions being asked about the Hedgehog pathway. Fortunately, my past professor had just recently offered to be my co-sponsor this year for independent research for credit. Thus, I will be able to continue my work into this upcoming fall semester!
As an undergraduate research intern working with current PhD students who have been studying the field of developmental biology for so long, certain biochemical concepts and research methods can often be quite difficult to understand. Without a full understanding of the biological mechanisms involved in the specific signaling pathway you are studying, you are unable to ask curious questions and develop experiments to answer those questions. Moreover, when working with a lab team, it is nearly impossible to understand the basis and goals for different experiments you (with the graduate students, of course) are conducting–because you simply do not have a full grasp of the entire picture.
Knowing how important it is for undergraduates to fully understand the genetics, research techniques, anatomy, and biochemistry involved in the Hedgehog signaling pathway (which is what my lab focuses on), my P.I. and I have set up weekly 1.5 hour meeting times in which I am able to ask him numerous questions to clarify and deepen my understanding of developmental biology concepts. Over the past couple weeks now, my P.I. has become a real mentor to me, in that he not only has given me a vast higher-level understanding of the Hedgehog pathway in the olfactory epithelium, but continues to provide me advice and encouragement in regards to my future aspiration to continue on to graduate school. Having such a strong educational and professional support system at work has further deepened my passion for the scientific research field, and has motivated me to further my own independent research on the topic and develop my own questions and outlines of how to seek further answers.
For example, up until now, the graduate student I work with and I have been manipulating transgenes to understand the roles of constitutively active/repressive forms of certain proteins on mouse olfactory epithelium. With that being said, over time I have widened my understanding of why we use certain controls and certain mutant forms of gene alleles in order to see the different phenotypes that those changes may have. However, my P.I. continues to ask me challenging questions that allow me to see the specific topics with which I may not fully understand. He asks me to draw out certain forms of specific proteins and asks me what the effects would be after certain mutations. Such exercises have made me better aware of the concepts that I need to further refine in my mind. And with the help of this mentor, I was recently able to outline an additional experiment where I would further manipulate controls and mutant mice in order to see the full phenotypes of different forms of endogenous genes in the mouse olfactory epithelium.
At the end of the day, one’s level of knowledge is not as much a result of unchangeable intelligence, but of the hard work and passion that one has for the field. By asking questions, filling in gaps of knowledge, and seeking help when needed, one can continue to strive higher and higher in whatever field it is that he/she is in.
Working at the Biomedical Research Center here at Michigan has further made me realize the ways I can excel in the field by taking advantage of opportunities to attend the educational events the biomedical graduate/medical departments put on for their students. As an undergraduate research intern, it is easy to fall into the trap of not attending the graduate students’ practice prelims, thesis defenses, or any other highly eye-opening lectures/talks that is offered out, for fear that these events are not intended for undergraduate students. However, my lab team and P.I. have continued to show me how far one can go just by asking questions and actively/independently seeking answers. Within this past week, I attended a practice prelim session for one of the graduate students in the Ben Allen lab. His talk on how he intends to explore the role of Hedgehog signaling in the development and progression of pancreatic cancer gave me not only a much better grasp on the biological mechanisms of the Hedgehog pathway, but have also refined the processes in which I am able to develop curious questions about the signaling pathways in our bodies. Furthermore, his outline of how he intends to explore his own questions through various long-term experiments and trials allowed me to get a better sense of how I, as an aspiring scientist, can not only ask questions, but experimentally seek answers.
Additionally, later this past week, I attended another graduate student’s thesis defense where the student proudly gave an hour and a half long talk about his discoveries of how the segmentation on organisms like drosophila can be seen not only visibly on its outer body, but can also be traced down to the actual patterning of its own DNA. His usage of ChIP-sequencing was not only seen as bold, but his patience in achieving the most accurate data showed me further the techniques, creativity, and boldness that is needed in this field, although people may not realize that.
Although this past week I have continued my own work in the project I have going on (I talked about this in my first blog post) with the post-doc I work with currently, this week was mostly about going out of my way to seek additional opportunities to learn. Especially in the field of biology, where the conservation of signaling pathways in different biological mechanisms are undeniable, so too are the processes of thinking that are needed to build efficient scientists. And certainly, at the end of the day, the lessons learned from other professors, graduate students, and post-docs all help me in my own independent research project (which explores the role of Hedgehog signaling in the olfactory epithelium of mice).
The research internship I have been blessed with at the Biomedical Research Center here at the University of Michigan has been one of the most gratifying experiences so far in my college career. To provide a little more context, I work in the Ben Allen lab in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan Medical School.
Primarily, I work with a post-doctoral researcher in exploring the Hedgehog signaling pathway in the olfactory epithelium in adult mice. Throughout my past two years here at Michigan, I have been developing a passion for the field of developmental biology and was hoping that my time here as an intern would allow me to immerse myself in the field and give me a better sense of what the world of scientific research involves. In the fall semester of my sophomore year, I took a developmental biology class at Michigan where the professors who taught the course first primed me to the processes of thinking that go into developing questions regarding biological mechanisms. Thus, for this summer, I wanted to get a first-hand experience into the different lab techniques and questions that go into making discoveries, problem-solving, and collaboration.
Thus, what has surprised me so much this summer is how much I am capable of accomplishing as an undergraduate research intern in this lab. Because this lab focuses on working with the undergraduate student and teaching the student how to do research, I have been learning how to cryosection mammalian tissue, stain with antibodies, genotype using several different techniques, collect and embed tissue, and recently, I have been focusing on electroporation and dissection. As an undergraduate student, I think it is easy to feel as though such hands-on opportunities are far-off and uneasy to obtain. However, I have been learning more and more that putting yourself out there and having a genuine interest in whatever field you are doing goes a long way. If you want to learn more, asking the graduate students and the P.I. questions in an attempt to seek more information goes a long way too.
As one of two undergraduates working in this lab, I sometimes have been feeling a lot of pressure to not make any mistakes. And at times, I have found myself afraid to ask questions for fear of giving off the impression that certain concepts are too difficult for me. However, the teachers in this lab are constantly showing me that in the field of scientific research, making mistakes is okay. As long as you are constantly trying to reason through and optimize your project, you are doing something right.