Reflection on the summer

Before the program started, I set the goals of “practicing how to think and tackle problems like a researcher and figuring out whether doing basic science research is what I want.” As the program comes to an end, I’m starting to realize my most important takeaway is that I love being a student. Students learn the answers to questions. Scientists are but a special kind of student. They can’t find answers in a textbook or from a teacher, but they must seek answers from the natural world itself. Choosing a career in research would mean becoming a life-long student. It’s exciting, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding. Before BSURF, I often said that I’m interested in research. Now, I’m certain that research will be a part of what I do in the future. 

One other thing I would mention is that this program has provided numerous opportunities for practicing how to communicate science. How much communication is involved in a career in science is also something I didn’t understand before. In addition to doing research in the lab, I really enjoyed the seminars and workshop sessions that this program offered. Finally, I would like to thank Rachel, Dr. Ko, members of the Ko lab, Dr. Grunwald, Dr. Harrell, and Austin for making this wonderful experience possible.

Launching my career in science

In retrospect, this summer research experience has been extremely fulfilling. Before I began working in the lab, I set a goal for myself: I wanted to become more confident in my research abilities. This “confidence” does not only include my confidence when conducting experiments but also confidence when sharing my research with others. Through the chalk talks, conversations with peers and family, and the poster symposium, I can feel that I have accomplished this goal; I have become a better speaker in communicating my science. It is truly gratifying to know that I have grown so much in just two months. Additionally, this summer’s research helped me recognize and refine my strengths. I also evolved by acquiring knowledge in a field I once knew nothing about.

Not only did I transform this summer, but my definition of research has also evolved. Prior to this experience, I knew research involves working in the lab and conducting experiments. But after this experience, I can confidently say that research is much more than that. Research involves creativity, insights from others, collaboration with coworkers, and innovative ideas. My colleagues in the lab and the faculty have all given me words of wisdom that I will apply in my life. I truly enjoyed my experience in the lab, and even though this B-SURF experience has ended, I know that this experience has launched the beginning of my career in science.

A Great Summer With BSURF

BSURF was a wonderful experience. When first hearing about and applying to the program, I had no idea what to expect from a sumer research experience. I knew that I wanted to try something with biological and virological research in my time at Duke but had no idea how to get involved or how to find the right lab and mentor to help me get a good experience. In hearing about BSURF, I learned that this program would help to navigate this confusing process and give more experiences on how research works and how to be a good researcher. I was very excited for this type of opportunity even though I did not know what to actually expect in the research itself.
Now at the end of BSURF, I can happily say that BSURF was everything it promised and more. I was able to join a lab in virology that helped me to better understand what research in virology and microbiology is through the help of wonderful mentors. I was able to get good advice from both my mentors in my lab, Vanessa and Dr. Horner, and the leaders of the BSURF program, Austin, Dr. Harrell, & Dr. Grunwald. I was able to make great friends with other students interested in biological research and spend lots of time discussing research and other interesting topics with programmed events. I am very glad that I was able to be a part of this experience!

When all was said and done

In my first blog post (written what seems like both eons and mere days ago), I emphasized the role that uncertainty plays in becoming a more active learner and better scientist. Instead of shying away from uncertainty, I expected to become comfortable with it, to the point that when I left BSURF, I would do so with a greater appreciation for challenges and my own capabilities.

Indeed, over the course of the program, I found myself in situations that ultimately strengthened my resolve about my academic and professional goals. Through the faculty talks, the chalk talks, the grad/MSTP student panel, and the poster sessions, I was able to hear about only a fraction of the science going on around me here at Duke. While the thought is a little overwhelming when it comes to the breadth of opportunities for engaging said science, it’s also heartening. I have been able to narrow down what concepts I want to continue to investigate, the types of questions I want to ask, and the community I want to be surrounded by. Thanks to my time in my lab, I have learned some of the technical skills that will enable my scientific pursuits and furthered my comprehension of cell biology. As such, I greatly appreciate my time in BSURF and hope to continue this growth throughout the rest of my time at Duke.     

That’s a wrap on BSURF!

After the conclusion of the poster presentation for BSURF, I decided to reread my very first blog about my expectations of the summer. These past 8 weeks have flown by, yet the Amelia writing the first blog seems so different. She was just at the beginning of her journey to being a researcher, with so much ahead of her. 

I am truly amazed by how much I have learned throughout this program. I started out with very little programming skills and now that we’re the end of BSURF, I am comfortable with coding for the whole work day, and I was able to complete my goals for my project! I must admit, there were many times where I was overwhelmed by all of the troubleshooting and debugging I had to work through, as well as maneuvering my way through a new language, Python. Thankfully, I was able to push through, majorly thanks to the help of my amazing mentors Anne and Liz, and my fellow lab mate Chris. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming everyone was at the Pearson Lab. It made my summer research experience even more enjoyable. I’d also like to give a huge thanks to John for giving me the opportunity to join the Pearson Lab for the summer.

I could go on and on about how rewarding this experience was, but before I wrap up this final blog, I would like to thank everyone who is a part of BSURF. Without Dr. Grunwald, Dr. Harrell, and Austin, this experience would not be nearly as great as it has been. I always looked forward to your smiling faces in the mornings and Dr. Grunwald’s jokes throughout the day. The BSURF excursions were some of my favorite memories of the summer – canoeing, dinner at Dr. G’s house, the Lemur Center, the art gallery crawl, just to name a few. Last but not least, I really enjoyed the community of bsurfers and I’m lucky to say that I made some amazing new friends along the way. I wish you all the best of luck with your future research endeavors! 

Comprehensive BSURF Review

What exactly is research? Research is pushing the boundaries of knowledge and venturing to uncharted territory. It’s experiencing failure while logically and creativity exploring new angles to tackle the problem. Research is a lifestyle, but is it a field I am capable of pursuing? That was the question that I had before this summer.

If I had to summarize BSURF in one word, it would be insightful. I held an apprehensive outlook on research. I construed it as an arduous field requiring years of knowledge before even considering collaborating with others; however, working on a well-funded lab this summer unveiled the fallacy of my aforementioned perspective. My eight weeks with the program illuminated on the pleasurable, intellectual, and collaborative challenge that is called research. Diving deep into a subject was amazing, especially receiving advice from knowledgable peers and professors. I had forgone my hesitance to reach out to more informed persons and altered my self-efficacy in pursuing research.

Overall, the community and experience have illuminated on an amazing path that I had previously disregarded with minimal consideration. Now, I look forward to continuing with research in my upcoming and future years, and hope to continue with research even after I complete my undergraduate degree. Thank you BSURF for the memories. I will be leaving with new friends, insight, skills, and a deeper understanding of my goals and interests.


BSURFun in the Sun!

What a summer. I originally applied to BSURF because I wanted to explore my options with biological science research and career pathways – and that is absolutely what was fostered through this program. These eight weeks have absolutely flown by, with all of the research, meetings, and fun activities that makes BSURF such a unique experience. From canoeing on the Eno River and climbing the Duke Chapel, to eating popcorn for breakfast and having late night hangouts in Swift Apartments, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here this summer. And of course, this program would not be what it is without the invaluable knowledge and expertise I gained from my research and weekly seminars. I treasure the growth I have experienced in just two months, as well as the friends I have made along the way (and who will remain so).

I really appreciate this wonderful opportunity, and I could not imagine having done anything else for my summer. Being surrounded by my extremely qualified and caring peers created an exceptional learning environment, filled with discussion and also fun and laughs.

Thank you BSURF for making my summer so extraordinary and for connecting me with friends, mentors, researchers, and faculty that truly care about undergraduate research and bettering society with science. Thank you for allowing me to explore and branch out. I am honored to be a Biological Science Undergraduate Research Fellow.

(and now, if you ever need someone to identify aquatic macroinvertebrates for you, just call me up!)

The Beginning of an Era

This summer has taught me at least one thing: eight weeks is not much time at all. I never understood the “slow” pace of research. The idea of working on a project for years was strange to me; I never could wrap my head around why so much time was needed. Now, reflecting on what has been the quickest summer I remember, I understand that my research experience was a very short one, and I want more.

Overall, this summer in the lab has been a great experience and has altered my desired career and academic paths. I came into Duke as someone who was very unsure about how to channel my love of science. I considered many paths, including that of a pure PhD scientist or physician scientist, but eventually decided that my place was in patient care with limited involvement in research. I didn’t like the idea of being in an office or not having contact with other people (things that I thought were hallmarks of a career in research).

This summer showed me that I truly love the process of research and scientific inquiry. I love asking questions, understanding and applying techniques and knowledge, and being able to do those things in service of my other passion, patient care, is truly a wonderful thing. When I ruled out a career in research, I really didn’t have enough of an idea of what it was actually like. I just knew it was not as much of a concrete path as a career as an MD can be. I didn’t know how collaborative, social, and fun the lab environment could be.

I’ve now reconsidered what I want. I know that I want to do research in some major capacity. I’m not yet sure if that would be as a PI or an associate of someone else’s lab or in industry, but I do think that I would be more fulfilled by a career in research and patient care than in either alone. Going along with that goal, I am once again very strongly leaning towards pursuing a Medical Scientist Training Program. This summer has shown me how much I love the lab and convinced me that I could be happy despite being in school for all of my 20s. I truly cannot wait to spend more time in lab and get to properly follow a project, maybe even one of mine own, from beginning to end.

SURFing Away from the Summer

I’m typing this having just recently submitted my final poster draft for the research symposium, but I feel like I only just submitted my first blog post a few days ago. Reflecting on the past 8 weeks, I feel comfortable saying that my expectation for the summer as outlined by that first blog, “to grow a lot,” was achieved. My first full time “adult” job- that is, working approximately 9-5 without an onslaught of assignments, extracurriculars, and exams to keep track of- was quite the novel experience and I loved it. I could devote my full energy to a single project for two months and still have free time to visit the Farmer’s Market, hold snakes and canoe at the Eno River, and explore Durham more than I’ve ever been able to during the school year. Those experiences were all part of my growth as a person- becoming more independent and involved with my surroundings -but most of the growing I did was as a scientist. I was quite honestly pretty scared to begin research this summer. I’d had very little lab experience and a brooding fear of failure. This wasn’t immediately lost during my first few despite the welcoming and helpful mentors I found. I remember being handed a DNA extraction protocol and trying not to ask 16 thousand questions about each step. However, with each faculty talk, workshop, and new day in the lab, these nerves began to shake off. All of the faculty speakers and my lab mates recounted reassuring stories of their time as undergraduates and I got to see what their path and current “day in the life” in science was. And, as with most new things, after some practice I felt a whole lot more confident (only having to ask maybe 5 thousand questions).

The influence of this program was much less linear than I expected. I thought I’d take part and know that either “wow, I love research this is what I’m going to do forever” or “nope, definitely not for me” and go directly from there. Instead, I realized how binary that view was. Each faculty talk showed me a new area of intrigue. We were exposed to molecular genetics, ecology, microbiology, clinical research, computational biology, and more. We met people who worked in the woods, on a computer, in the hospital, and on the lab bench. In that way, B-SURF’s influence on me was more wide-sweeping, exposing me to a whole area of potential opportunities rather than a yes/no consensus. It’s honestly a little daunting to see all that’s out there but I’m excited to continue exploring with a more confident and experienced outlook. Thanks to Dr. G, Dr. Harrell, Austin, and my lab mentors for a great summer!

Best Summer Under Ron’s Fun (BSURF)!

From unsuccessful electroporation experiments to learning about the linear relationship between chocolate and Nobel prizes, this summer has been filled with meaningful experiences that I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to enjoy.

Working in the Gerecht Lab under my mentor YingYu Lin has opened future possibilities for me. Not only have I learned more about graduate school by conversing with my coworkers but also, I’ve developed the skills to work in a BME lab. Before working, I had no prior experience in cell culture or confocal microscopy. I had never performed staining and did not even know that flow cytometry existed. The types of technologies that I have been exposed to have caused new questions to emerge and this curiosity in me to find the answers.

One of the most important aspects of laboratory research that I learned has been that of troubleshooting. My project this summer was not a long one, yet I was unable to reach my desired results. YingYu and I would succeed in some aspects but once we took the next step it felt like we were going three steps back. Multiple times the phrases “I am so confused right now” and “this makes no sense” would spill out of our mouths bringing forth the sound that represented our state of confusion. And so, we would undergo another round of troubleshooting our failed point. Turns out that the reason our research was unable to be completed was due to contamination of our ETV2 mRNA. Unfortunately, we won’t have more time to complete the study, but I plan to continue working in the Fall. Regardless, I found beauty in the troubleshooting process; it is like a game where one keeps failing at a level but trying repeatedly using different strategies to beat the level. The art of troubleshooting, as unfortunate as it sounds, is a lesson that I learned every single week this past summer at least once; but it kept my curiosity going and my desire to learn “why” certain situations were occurring.

I think about my future after undergraduate school and the idea of working in a lab does not frighten me; the environment I have been surrounded by this summer besides my mentor and all the other graduate students has been very pleasant and I look forward to finding a lab in the future that not only revolves around my interests but also holds a family like behavior within the lab members.

Furthermore, my time outside of the lab has also been full of joyful moments. From canoeing on the Eno to exploring Falls Lake, I have been able to explore more of the Durham area with new friends (shoutout to Amelia and Emma). And I cannot forget to also thank Dr. Grunwald, without your interesting stories, very very funny jokes, and of course your snakes, this summer would have not been the same.

Do what you love! Lessons from Dr. Emily Bernhardt

All of the faculty seminars have been super insightful and Dr. Emily Bernhardt’s talk particularly stood out to me. She is an ecologist at Duke who studies how energy and elements move, specifically focusing on environmental issues that people care about. Ever since she was a kid, she loved being outside, and she pursued a career doing just that.

Initially, I was a bit surprised that her talk was one of my favorites because her work as an ecologist is pretty different from the computational work I’ve been doing in lab. Maybe it’s the shared love for National Parks that drew me in, maybe it’s the amazing outlook she has for life and your career. 

Here are 5 pieces of advice from Dr. Bernhardt that I’d like to share. She had many more than 5 pieces of advice, but these really resonated with me.

  1. If you enjoy STEM in any capacity, go for it! No one should be afraid to pursue STEM because of its reputation of being all about quantitative skills. Scientists and other STEM careers involve many other soft skills. For example, being a good communicator is a key skill scientists need.
  2. Surround yourself with good people. Having good mentors that can challenge and support you is super important for your current and future jobs/experiences. Being with brilliant and kind people improves your work and how much you enjoy your work.
  3. Deciding to not pursue a specific STEM career is not a failure! Sometimes it takes some trial and error to discover what you really enjoy. A background in science is always helpful.
  4. Always keep your options open and have a backup plan. Being open to change in your life and your career makes you more resilient to challenges and can make you happier in your career.
  5. Last but not least, Dr. Bernhardt believes you should be having fun at least 50% of the year. One bad day or one bad week is not going to tank everything. Nevertheless, you need to make sure that your job, whatever it ends up being, is still fun and something you enjoy!

Durham’s Taqueria Connoisseur: Mohammed Noor

When Dr. Grunwald warned us the day before Dean Noor’s faculty talk that he was one of the most frequent Yelp reviewers of taquerias in Durham, I had absolutely no idea what he was going to be like the next day. However, I was pleased to find out what a charismatic and passionate guy he was. Despite my moderate lack of interest in evolutionary biology, he exemplified a characteristic that I find is challenging to find in many people: contagious passion. He was so incredibly passionate about not only his field, but his job and the future of the Trinity School, I couldn’t help but find myself interested in his work. He described to us the various facets that influence genetic evolution as well as the curious connections that make up humanity’s ancestry. But more interesting is his job and the hierarchy that makes up the Trinity School of Arts and Sciences. As the newly declared interim Dean of Trinity, he will now be managing the entire school, including his previous department of the Natural Sciences. Despite him being put in a position of much greater power, he recognizes one simple thing that would remedy the challenges faced by previous Deans – maintaining Trinity’s status quo. Rather than making radical changes during his very brief time as the Dean, creating difficulties and issues that the succeeding Dean would have to handle, by maintaining the status quo and simply cleaning up any burrs in the current school and system, Dean Noor is presenting a clean and well-oiled system to the next Dean who can make progress efficiently and effectively. I’m excited to know someone like him will be heading the Trinity school and I am glad I got to hear him speak. Also, I frankly couldn’t help but feel a little distracted for the entire talk due to his voice’s striking resemblance to Sal Khan from Khan Academy.

Reflection on Dr. Lefkowitz’s talk

Through a series of unexpected events, a young doctor who had just graduated from med school found himself in a prestigious program designed to train physician scientists. Dr. Lefkowitz, who had never thought about doing research before, experienced failure for the first time. The two-year training program was eventually successful, but he struggled in the process. Biomedical research proved to be more difficult than anything he had done before. During residency, Dr. Lefkowitz discovered that he actually missed the challenges of research, and he decided to dedicate a large part of his career to basic science research.

This faculty seminar from Tuesday given by Professor Lefkowitz made me think a lot about what I want to do with my life. His speech made me excited about doing research, and more importantly, his advice was valuable. Here are some of the talkaways I got from his talk. Building a career around scientific problems is better than building one with lab techniques. Learning new lab techniques takes a lot of time and effort, and it can be particularly difficult when one is already very comfortable with a set of techniques. However, as scientists, it’s more important to learn whatever that’s necessary for answering the scientific questions. Viewing work as play makes doing research fun. I resonate with Dr. Lefkowitz’s point of how intellectually stimulating the process of asking questions, forming hypotheses, and designing experiments is. Don’t talk oneself out of an experiment. Sometimes taking risks can provide surprising results, and a lot of scientific discoveries were made this way.

70% Chocolate = Noble Prize

With so many brilliant, accomplished, and passionate people speaking at the BSURF meetings, all of them were amazing and insightful; however, Dr. Lefkowitz’s talk “A Tale of Two Callings” was especially enjoyable to listen to. In particular, it was extremely insightful to hear about his transition into research despite his steadfast desire to pursue medicine. Although several factors facilitated his involvement in research such as the Vietnam War, his insight was quite noteworthy regarding research.

A key takeaway from his talk was the notion of finding mentors. I personally already view mentors as invaluable people to be able to exchange ideas and learn new practical perspectives from, as they have already walked down an avenue that you are trying to at least somewhat follow. Their ability to expound a viewpoint or understanding that you didn’t even consider truly widens your perspective and aligns your efforts and mindsets more directly with your goals and aspirations. He delineated the necessity of finding and choosing your mentors alongside having grit, persistence, and practicing diligently. Risk must be taken and accepting risk can lead to some incredible discoveries.

A comical aspect of the talk was the doctor’s discussing 70% dark chocolate. After showing a graph, obviously due to correlation and not causation, countries with a higher average of chocolate consumption typically had higher quantities of Noble Prizes awarded to them.

A Different Kind of Genetics Lab

When Dr. Charmaine Royal asked all of us what kind of research we would be doing this summer, I was excited to relate my work in a molecular genetics lab with her genetics research. Instead, she described an entirely different way of looking at genetics, one that I had never considered before. Dr. Royal investigated the differences between the biological and social constructs of race. But instead of looking at DNA, she focuses on the consequences of variation in human DNA on a much larger scale.

Dr. Royal explained that in order for two species to diverge into races they have genes that are 2.5% different. However, any two humans only differ by 0.1%. Therefore, the idea that humans are different is a social construct, not a biological one. Dr. Royal now works to break down this social construct acorss many areas of society, such as in sports and medicine.

Beyond Dr. Royal’s research, her story of how she got to her career today was reassuring. Everyone at Duke seems to know exactly where they will be in five or ten years. But Dr. Royal told us that she had to switch majors late in her undergraduate career, meaning she had to spend extra time to finish her new major. To us that sounds scary but spending more time in order to have a career she loves was worth it for Dr. Royal.

Dr. Royal’s talk surprised me the most as I went in assuming I would hear about techniques I was using in the lab. Instead I was able to see my field of research from a new perspective. Dr. Royal’s personal story inspires me to find something I am passionate about. Thank you Dr. Royal and all the other amazing faculty members who took the time to speak to us this summer!

Talk of a Chocolate Loving Nobel Laureate

Having so many brilliant people come and talk to us about their current research, career paths, and anything in between has been an amazing part of the BSURF program. Although they were all very interesting and valuable in many ways, the talk that I have chosen to reflect upon because of its level of interest to me is Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz’s talk. His presentation titled “A Tale of Two Callings: Physician vs Scientist,” encompassed how he went from solely being interested in being a physician after having graduated from Columbia University to how he got involved in research and went on to win a Nobel Prize. The event that made him get involved in research was actually the Vietnam War, which he did not want to be a part of and instead became a part a large group of physicians that received training in research from the NIH. He said that although he did not like the feeling of failing so frequently in the lab with projects and experiments, it kept him interested and enthusiastic especially since he said he excelled at most other things in his life that he set his mind on. Even though I know this is one of the most frustrating parts of research, I must agree with Dr. Lefkowitz that it’s exciting because it keeps you on your toes and makes you be more creative to figure out how to address the problem you are working on.

Right now, I am at a crossroads in terms of whether I want to pursue al MD or an MD, PhD because I aspire to one day be a physician, but I have started culminating this love of research as well. With its endless possibilities in terms of what there is to explore, discover, and improve in the world, it makes the perfect environment for someone who always craves to learn more as I know that I do. In any case, the biggest piece of advice that I am left with after Dr. Lefkowitz’s talk is to eat 70% or greater dark chocolate of any brand—he currently buys the brand Chocolove—just in case I decide I want to earn a Nobel Prize in the future just as he did.

Creativity in science: words of wisdom from Dr. Lefkowitz

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from distinguished faculty, ranging from those specializing in microbiome research to those studying evolutionary genetics. While their research may be drastically different, I observed that each seminar had a common theme: the idea that science starts with observation. More particularly, I was fascinated by Dr. Lefkowitz’s talk, specifically how his observations led to his discovery of g-protein-coupled receptors. Even though he is now a Nobel-prize winner, it was interesting learning that he was never interested in research during his undergrad years. It wasn’t until his exposure to research through the NIH that he discovered his love of the lab.

While his research is fascinating, I was intrigued by his mellow demeanor. He has lived a fascinating life, and I enjoyed hearing his stories and wisdom. In his words, one of the keys to success is learning to tell a good story. This advice emphasized a soft skill necessary in science, specifically the ability to be creative. After undergoing an experiment and collecting data, the results alone do not tell a story. It is the researcher, who simultaneously is also the author, that imposes a story on the data. Another key to success that was profound to me was the idea that humor is creativity, and creativity is the basis of science. I enjoyed how Dr. Lefkowitz explained that the process of understanding the punchline of a joke is the equivalent of making a discovery–which is a crucial part of science.

His seminar can be summed up in the following statement: be ambitious, stay focused, and eat lots of dark chocolate.

Chocolate, Coach K, and Charisma: The talk of Dr. Robert Lefkowitz

Last Tuesday, one of Duke’s Nobel Prize winners came to speak to BSURF, Dr. Lefkowitz. To my surprise, Dr. Lefkowitz spoke very briefly about the focus of his lab work. However, his talk very quickly became one of my favorites because of his focus on determination in changing careers, applicable goals for success in science, and charismatic anecdotes.

Dr. Lefkowitz obtained a B.S. and MD from Columbia and was quickly met with a difficult problem after graduation. All doctors were required to enlist for the Vietnam war. In order to circumvent going to Vietnam, he joined a group of doctors at the NIH nicknamed the yellow berets, getting his first research experience there. He spoke of the great struggle he had in the first months there, as he never intended to do any research in his career, and his eventual fondness for research because of this initial struggle in the program. He then described his eventual return to research after some time as a clinician, his opening of his lab at Duke, and the work in his lab that led to his Nobel Prize. What I enjoyed most about his talk was his tips for success that he learned throughout this journey. He told us to focus, build this focus around interesting questions and not techniques, do lots of experiments, don’t talk yourself out of experiments, be bold, take risks, and fail, but don’t be afraid, learn to tell a good story, be ambitious, be persistent, and prepare, among other things.

What stuck with me about this section of his talk was not the exact tips themselves, but rather the anecdotes he told along with each one to better engage with the audience and explain what he meant by each one. With this, he additionally mused on the necessity of jokes (so long as you’re a funny person), his love for Duke basketball and his friendship with Coach K, and the absolute necessity of chocolate in order to become a Nobel Laureate. It was these stories that drew me most to his talk and were used excellently to better understand and characterize himself and his pathway in research. Dr. Lefkowitz wonderfully shared his life and his research with us this week with some excellent advice. I will certainly be eating more chocolate after hearing from him!