Woman in a lab at the National Cancer Institute (US). Image by Daniel Sone.
Conducting research as a student
Studying STEM has never been more important than in the COVID-19 era, but the path forward for students is challenging and uncertain. How and when will labs reopen? Will students be allowed to conduct in-person research? How they will gain hands-on STEM skills during an age of social distancing?
We’ll be examining questions like these in a three-blog series about what it means to be a STEM student during COVID-19. To start, we’re hearing from two students who have conducted scientific research, both before and during the pandemic, about their experiences and advice.
Sophie* is a Marlborough School graduate and incoming Columbia freshman who has been interested in STEM since elementary school. “In 5th grade, my twin sister, Talia, was diagnosed with celiac disease. I was not,” Sophie said. “In that same year, my father had a cancer of unknown origin.” Sophie first became curious about biology “partially because I thought that somehow, some way in the future, I could help… My first introduction into the STEM world being a very personal one, I’ve grown from that and I’ve developed other interests in STEM beyond specifically what happened to my father, what happened to my sister. I find [biology] innately interesting.”
Sophie got involved in STEM research as a high school student. “My first lab at USC was very much an introduction to the research world,” she said. “I learned the necessary skills that you need to then work in a lab and do things independently, like I have done at my new lab.”
She found her second lab through Marlborough School’s Honors Research in Science program, which involves intensive, year-long research. After she identified potential mentors in the Los Angeles area, the program head reached out on her behalf. Sophie was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to work in her first-choice lab in the Center for Personalized Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles under Dr. Jaclyn Biegel.
“I started in July of that year,” Sophie recounted, “and really for the better part of the summer, I was just there learning.” She felt welcomed and supported by “the incredible people that I met there” who invited her to shadow them.
Soon, Sophie was working on her own projects related to “the genetic background of rhabdoid tumors, which [are] a highly aggressive pediatric cancer.”
“One of the biggest things I learned apart from my research was just how to approach the research process,” she said. Sophie’s mentor taught her how to be flexible, “allowing [the research] question to evolve, to change, and maybe to disappear entirely if a more interesting or more fruitful topic comes up instead.”
Sophie also values the clinical applications of her research. “While I’m researching, I have people that are actually applying the biological concepts that I’m looking into just across the lab bench from me, and they’re diagnosing children with the disease that I’m researching,” she said. “I love my lab, and everything about it was amazing.”
In March, Sophie’s research experience was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Once her high school shut down, she transitioned “pretty abruptly” from “going there three, four times a week” to staying home for the sake of both her family and the lab members. Given the hands-on nature of her research, Sophie cannot conduct research virtually, but she has been keeping up with articles in her field. Meanwhile, “the lab itself has switched to researching COVID-19 as well.” Now, Sophie is looking ahead to the STEM opportunities she’ll have at Columbia.
Grier, a rising senior at Stevens Institute of Technology, has experience with undergraduate STEM research. She has “always been very interested in science, from a young age,” and she majored in biomedical engineering to combine her STEM interests.
As a Pinnacle Scholar at Stevens, she receives a stipend for, among other things, conducting research over the summer. Grier found labs to work in by reaching out to Stevens professors. "I took a class last spring, that was basically just an intro to biomedical engineering class, and all these professors from the biomedical department came in and explained their research." She approached one such professor about working in his translational lung bioengineering lab—"I believe what they're doing is they're trying to create a less invasive way to monitor the regrowth of epithelial cells after a lung has been injured or damaged," Grier explained. This led to a valuable 10-week summer research experience in which Grier was "testing the efficacy and the efficiency of the novel imaging device that they already had kind of created."
“Although it was very cool, I kind of realized that’s not what I want to do,” Grier said. So this year, after the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home, she contacted another professor from her biomedical engineering class about conducting research virtually. Now, Grier is “developing an animation system for a system of rehabilitation” for a musculoskeletal lab.
“I think it has been, despite being online, a really valuable research position,” she said. Although Grier would have preferred an in-person lab experience, she’s grateful that “they have data already that I can work with” and that communication is “very easy,” making for “a really good experience so far.”
What does this mean for students who want to get involved in STEM research in high school or college? Grier and Sophie have some advice for younger students.
“It’s all about finding the professors whose interests match with your own and just emailing them,” Sophie suggested. “And by doing that earlier on in your high school career, it really opens up a world of possibilities for your research…”
Grier would encourage students to “take their classes really seriously, because if they do want to do research, they’re definitely going to need what they learned in classes, whether or not they think they will… Just be flexible with what you’re willing to do and how much time you’re willing to put into your research, because I really think that the only way you’re really going to get a valuable experience is by being open to things maybe you didn’t think you would.”
Why get involved in research in the first place? Capstone co-founder and research scientist Dr. Shelley Enger shares her expert perspective. “One important reason is to find out whether you really want to make a career in research. Once you get to college, you can lose a lot of time taking courses and planning for graduate school in a field that doesn’t interest you. Another reason is to see what scientists do on a day-to-day basis. Students often envision scientists spending all of their waking hours at the lab bench, but some scientists don’t work in “wet” labs and all scientists do a lot of reading, writing and speaking. You can also meet a lot of interesting people doing STEM research and learn about their careers,” she said.
Take it from new student researchers and experienced professional ones: STEM research can be a very meaningful experience.
Don’t forget that Capstone can be a resource if you need help planning your STEM education goals!
＊ This Sophie has no relation to the Sophie from Marlborough who has appeared in previous articles.