Friday, May 23, 2008

Walking the Line Between Grades and Experience: My Life as an Undergraduate Researcher (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

I finished my sophomore year with a B-average, and went into the summer with my mind set on losing myself in my research again. I was doing some really cool assays with M. tb and M. bovis BCG (I was the only undergraduate in the lab taking advantage of our facilities). This work spring boarded me into a highly competative fellowship from HHMI. Since this was quite a some of money, and it had to be renewed every semester (including summer's), I was dead set on putting out high quality and large quantity data.

So I did. My junior year (filled with Physics and Biochemistry) was spent skipping classes to put out data. And I did, I revised current protocols for a generalized transduction assay, assayed more than 2 dozen phages for this ability, screened over 200 phages for the ability to infect M. tb. (Manuscript in process) My work in the lab from my junior year was, in my opinion the best I had put out.

However, that summer when I went to renew my fellowship for my senior year, I received surprsing news. I would not be accepted into the program that fall because my grades were raising "red flags." It was in the opinion of the comittee that if I was to head to graduate school (like I planned) I would need to get my grades up. I was startled.

I had heard that experience was the primary factor in determining eligibility to PhD programs. I guess Cs in two semesters each of Physics and Biochemistry didn't look so good, not to mention that O. Chem 1 was repeated, along with its lab.

So, they cut off my funding so that I would spend more time studying, to lower the red flags.

Now, I am not a stupid person. Although, some may say that my grades don't demonstrate the intelligence required for higher learning. I took a step back from my research senior year, and concentrated on bringing my grades up. Each semester this past year (which were both heavy on senior-level biology courses) I earned a GPA of 3.8. Somehow, my final cumulative GPA was ~3.4, despite some very low semesters in the past.

I had to do this to show that I had learned the foundational knowledge of biology. I had already proved I knew my way around the lab, I had to show that I was doing more than going through the motions.

I brought my grades up to a point where there are no longer any red flags that shadow my lab accomplishments. I still managed to put out great work in the lab (soon-to-be first author on two papers), although I will concede that I did not finish as much research as I would have liked.

However, I'm now heading to my top choice of the graduate schools I applied to (Emory University, PhD Program in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics). My words of advice are to gain as much experience as possible, nothing is held in higher regard. But, to do so at the expense of grades...not such a good idea.

Although it worked out better than I could have imagined, there was a strong possibility that it would not have worked out this way. But now, I am onward to a place where building experience is the primary focus, and so I am quite excited to continue on my science career.

The End