CCD: Tell us about your experience. What were your responsibilities?
Katherine: I was in charge of a research project about apolipoproteins, which are proteins that move cholesterol and other lipids around in your body. This project was based on research that other scientists have published, and was used to highlight gaps in our knowledge. A certain apolipoprotein called ApoE also plays a big role in Alzheimer’s disease, so learning more about it helps us help people who are suffering.
The second project was a hands-on research project where I worked with mice that had a gene seen a lot in Ashkenazi Jews who live to be over 100 years old. I was studying different ways these mice might be different than mice without the gene, such as if they were smaller on average or had higher glucose levels in their blood. We were doing that research as a way to figure out why that gene helps people to live longer.
CCD: How did you find your position?
Katherine: This was my second summer at the lab. Last summer, I hand wrote letters to about 20 labs in NYC and Boston, explaining who I was and the type of research I was interested in doing. Only one lab got back to me, but that one lab ended up being a fantastic fit.
CCD: What was the best thing about the experience? What was the worst?
Katherine: I had an amazing mentor. He was extremely helpful in challenging me to think deeply about science, as well as to begin to shape my future in the sciences. Knowing that he is willing to support me with his advice and encouragement means a great deal. It was also comforting to know that if the argument or the data that I was presenting wasn’t good, I could count on him to say so, rather than to let it slide because I was “just an intern.”
Working with mice can be very difficult. It’s helpful when the experiments are the same things commonly done on humans (which they all were this summer). Although things can go wrong, it’s important to remember that in the end, they’re nothing more than tools for us. It’s necessary to be able to balance respect for the mice’s psychological/physical well-being with the detached nature of the work.
CCD: What are the top 3 skills you’ve learned from this experience?
Katherine: 1. Critical thinking. When designing experiments, it’s so important to be able to conceive every possible reason you could get a positive result, then test enough to rule out every option but the one you’re actually trying to prove. It’s the only way to be sure that you can publish results knowing that you can stand behind them 100%. On the other hand, not everyone does this to the same degree, and it’s important to keep that in mind when reading other people’s published work.
2. Public speaking. I gave presentations at the end of both summers, and the second time around was much better. When it comes to getting the word out about your research, integrating what you learned with your work is one of the most important factors.
3. Time management. There’s always a ton to do in the lab, so it’s important to think about how long a gel has to be in the machine, or how long it will take that PCR to run, in order to plan how to use the time in the lab.
CCD: What advice would you give to another student about making the most of a summer experience?
Katherine: You are your own best advocate. If you think it would be helpful to participate in a part of the work that you’re not doing, speak up! Ask at least one question a day, and ask more than one person the important questions, such as the benefits of certain positions or how to best prepare for your job during college so that you get a balanced opinion.