No such thing as a dumb question

What a reassuring phrase.

Especially this first week of conducting research in the Pendergast lab, I set out to ask without fear because yes, a minuscule part of me encountered fear: fear that, coming from the only undergrad in the lab, my questions would seem unintelligent, fear that lab members would not have time for me to pester them with my questions, and even fear that in response to my questions, my mentor would discuss complex processes in a way that I did not understand by quickly dropping unfamiliar concepts and large words into every other sentence.

My fears vanished after the first couple of days in lab, not by the assistance of one mentor, but two. My wonderful and enthusiastic PI, Dr. Ann Marie Pendergast, had assigned two mentors to endow me with the knowledge and tools I need to carry out my research project. These two people, along with several other lab members, have not hesitated to assist me in any of my needs or to explain more difficult concepts to me. Sometimes I receive several responses to the same question. Dr. Pendergast has even made herself available to speak with me and guide my project, even in the midst of her very busy schedule full of meetings.

Quick rewind to the beginning of summer break.

It all began with a stack of papers and a textbook titled, “the biology of cancer.” The expectation was that I would have the knowledge level of a graduate student before I began my research in the lab. The fact that I faced this daunting task only invigorated my eagerness to understand the concepts behind my project. Granted, I may have felt utterly lost as I walked into the first lab meeting on Monday as a lab member presented his data, speaking a language filled with various combinations of letters and numbers squished together to represent distinct words. Although my brain swirled with words to look up later, I quickly shook off any feelings of uncertainty as my two mentors introduced me to the wonders of cell culturing and western blotting. I was fascinated.

An accurate word to describe myself this week: fascinated.

Even looking at the product of a western blot I have done fascinates me: straight lines of a variety of sizes indicating the quantity of a specific protein in various cell lines. How will I ever get tired of entering the dark room in anticipation of viewing the Western results of a full day’s work? My lab members could probably answer that question…but that is beside the point.

Of course I had learned general concepts behind basic experiments such as western blotting, but let me tell you. Actually conducting the experiment feels much different than imagining the method as you read through a textbook. I was and still am fascinated using tools and techniques that my fellow lab members probably find monotonous. I remember the first time I observed one of my mentors using the electronic pipette controller. What a cool, sophisticated tool! In addition, the multichannel pipette I observed one of my mentors using for CellTiter-Glo only increased my amazement, along with viewing almost 100% confluent breast cancer cells through a microscope and learning the ways of cell culturing. May I never cease to be enthralled by an electronic pipette controller. What a lovely device.

As I observed my mentors conduct a variety of experiments related to their own projects, I found myself furiously scribbling notes in my handy dandy notebook. With two mentors, I could note the differing techniques each used and the reasons behind each method: the benefit of two mentors instead of just one.

So, based on my first week, what do I expect from my summer research experience?

I expect to ask questions and questions, and more questions. It is truly a great way to learn.

Of course, I also expect to learn new techniques. I hope to apply my current and future knowledge to fully understand and analyze the results of each experiment.

With limited research experience, I expected to be disappointed frequently, whether it was with resulting data or messing up a crucial part of an experiment. On the contrary, fellow lab members have only encouraged me, especially my two very patient mentors, Jake and Courtney. After all, who wouldn’t be encouraged by hearing, “you’re a pro” or even “you ask good questions.” The second compliment is my personal favorite of the week. Maybe my all-time favorite compliment in my academic life.

Furthermore, I expect to grow in confidence as a researcher as I become more familiar with my surroundings over the 8-week period.

I hope to make a contribution to the scientific world this summer from both my expected and unexpected results, no matter how minute or grand the contribution.

And finally, I expect to grow meaningful friendships with the people in my lab and my research fellows this summer. Here’s to a bright and fascinating summer.

My desk ft. my handy dandy notebook

Running and making gels at my lab bench. Can you spot the electronic pipette controller? It’s much cooler in action.

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