Thursday, May 22, 2008

Walking the Line Between Grades and Experience: My Life as an Undergraduate Researcher (Part 1)

From the moment I began looking for a university to attend after high school, I knew I wanted to do biology research. "Experience is key" I was told, in order to do anything after receiving a 4yr degree. So although I was unsure what it was I truly wanted to pursue after getting my BS in Microbiology, I KNEW that I would need research experience to succeed.

And so, I sent out my first requests to volunteer in research labs in October of my freshman year. No one would take a 1st year with no foundational knowledge....except one lab. The following semester, a post-doc in Graham Hatfull's lab, by the name of Marisa Pedulla, took me on board with a group of other students, although I was the youngest, to give us our first taste of research. We set out to perform bioinformatic analysis on a group of 6 Bacillus phage genomes that the Pittsburgh Bacteriophage Institute had recently finished sequencing. I was given the tools to uncover the patterns within the genetic code to find the most likely genes, hypothesize their function, and deduce evolutionary relationships.

I was hooked. It fascinated me to be able to unlock the secrets that patterns of four simple letters could hold.

I spent way to much time in front of a computer screen that semester, engrossed in sequence, running a million BLAST searches or ClustalW alignments at once. Suffice to say, my grades dropped. I had started my 1st year with a B average (not bad for an incoming freshman acclimating to a life 5hrs from childhood friends and family), and ended it with a C average. I dropped the ball. But I thought, "This experience will make up for a loss in grades." Little did I know....

I was asked to continue working on bacteriophage genetics in the Hatfull Lab that summer. So as an 18yr old just finished with one year of college, I began life as an adult. I rented out my own place--while all my friends had packed up to move back home with parents for the summer, I was packing boxes to take to a one-bedroom place a few blocks from the lab.

That summer I again engrossed myself in my work and work for the Hatfull Lab. (I should mention that some of this work is in the process of being published...). Summer went by quite fast, I visited my friends and family from home only twice because I was so over my head in what I was doing at the lab. Too soon, the summer ended and my second year began.

I was still working in the lab--only now I was required to work 10hrs a week. This soon became 20-30hrs a week because I became excited when things went well on some sequencing projects I was doing. Little did I know that I would be smacked over the head by two little words. Organic Chemistry. The bane of many undergraduate biology major's existances. I did not spend as much time studying for that course as I should have, and it showed in my grades. D+ in O. Chem 1--meaning I would have to retake the course. Suffice to say, I got an A in our honors genetics class (mainly because it was so applicable to what I was doing in the lab). But again, I my grades really did not accuratly portay my potential and what I knew. Again I thought, "It's my experience that will count, not my grades."

Again, I knew so little.

Continue Reading Part 2 Here