In my last post, I addressed many of the learning goals which I set for myself at the beginning of the summer. A skill acquisition type of objective, working with the confocal microscope, replaced my initial objective to work with stereology software. As confocal microscopy was deemed more appropriate for the task at hand (to view, label, and quantify types of neurons based on their neurotransmitter type and subregion localization within the ventral tegmental area). I had hoped to master the use of this equipment by the end of my internship. However I have found that mastery of any skill requires far longer than a single summer’s worth of practice. This is one point which truly served as a learning experience regarding the real world of scientific research, and of the working world in general. Along with confocal microscopy, immunohistochemistry was another skill which I had desired to master by the summer’s end. I have come to find that such skills might take a life time to master, and that one can never truly perfect them but instead constantly improves technique with practice. Scientists in this field, including the ones who spent time training me this summer, have spent decades practicing a great variety of laboratory techniques, and they too are constantly learning from colleagues and improving from their own in-success. From this, I learned that each and every skill that can be used in science takes hard work and dedication to reach a level of expertise. There are no short cuts or quick routes to an easy success.
This summer, I did learn a great deal about the basics of immunohistochemistry and confocal microscopy, and I practiced these skills to the point where I have laid a significant layer of groundwork to build off of in my future endeavors in the laboratory. By the end of my time on the job I had a compiled a box full of slides that I had prepared using immunohistochemistry of which I would view under the confocal microscope.
I managed to achieve a level of independence, of which I am quite proud, where I was allowed to, and comfortably did, adjust various steps in the procedures and protocols. My work was always taken seriously, and by the end of the summer, researchers, with years of experience, with whom I worked closely would even consult me about the procedures that I had spent time fine-tuning if they were about to start a new project using a similar technique. The one other undergraduate, aside from myself, who spent the summer as an intern with the same lab group became a great colleague, as she and I would frequently teach other the techniques and skills we had learned from our separate mentors, effectively learning from one another.
In fact, this was something I truly found amazing about the nature of the work experience in a research laboratory environment. There exists such a high level of collaboration amongst lab members that everyone, regardless of experience or age, is treated and treats one another with the utmost respect. Rather than striving to compete with co-workers, this lab experience showed me the extraordinary benefits of working along side and aiding them, so that everyone becomes invested in each other’s success rather achieving success through the failure of those around them.
There are a few words of advice that I would want to give a student interested in pursuing this kind of internship. In my opinion, one of the most essential components of achieving a sense of satisfaction from the internship experience is to ask any and all questions that come to mind. As an intern, a student is there to learn through real-world experience in that field while simultaneously performing a service of some kind to their host organization. In my experience this summer, I found that just about everyone is more than happy to help out the intern. Sometimes the other people working here can even learn a thing or two within their own field of expertise through a thought provoking question. It can: inspire the expert to look at something in a new way, cause the student to appear engaged and intellectually curious about their job, and also give the student-intern an answer to their question. Another piece of advice I would add is remember that nothing is black-and-white with a strict right or wrong answer, not even science. Pretty much everything is open to interpretation, including both new results/findings as well as currently accepted theories. Never be afraid to criticize/question someone else’s opinion(that is, as long as you aren’t ever rude/condescending about it), as such criticisms will typically be appreciated and usually help to build stronger support for the researcher’s argument. One thing to be wary of is the potential to over-criticize. I noticed this summer, during some of the lab meetings which I attended weekly, that some people could get carried away with criticism, perhaps in an attempt to show off or maybe out of spite. Either way, it becomes fairly obvious when someone ceases to criticize for the purpose of improvement/scientific progress and begins to do so for more selfish reasons.
Another important thing to remember as a summer intern is to make friends with coworkers and maintain these relationships. It is a great way to network and you never know who you might end up working with in the future. Having a good relationship with coworkers is also a necessity in laying the foundation for establishing an environment conducive to the high level of collaboration discussed above. Most simply, being friends with your coworkers will make your summer internship far more enjoyable. It is also vital to remember that just as the people you’re working with will typically be more than happy to help you out and answer your questions, it is important for you to be just as willing to help them. Whether it be through a skill that you have been practicing throughout your internship or just through a more broad knowledge base due to being a current student at a university while they might have a more focused yet narrow knowledge base, don’t forget that being a summer intern near the bottom of the totem pole does not mean that you are useless to those that you’re working with.
A truly amazing learning experience for me, this summer internship provided more for me than I could have imagined possible over the extent of a couple months. The skills that I was taught and honed are some which I can apply to many different experiments in my field throughout my future in the world of science. Regarding purely skill based learning, in addition to immunohistochemistry and confocal microscopy, I received certification in live mouse handling. Due to the highly sensitive nature of live animal use in laboratories, this process was extraordinarily thorough requiring rigorous learning, training, and testing. The process eventually resulted in my acquisition of these certificates:
More so than the various skills I learned this summer however, the greatest aspect of my summer learning entails the ability to now apply this experience and the lessons I’ve learned to the working world. This internship also provided me with a much needed experience, in that it provided me with the experience as to what a career in the laboratory science actually entails. Before this summer, my plans for a future career were based upon an amalgamation of ideas that I had assembled within my own mind. Now I have a much more accurate and realistic expectation of just what exactly working in a neuroscience research laboratory really means. My mentor also helped to guide me, beyond the capacity of anyone who has not directly gone through the process, toward taking the best possible steps to following the path of professional neuroscience laboratory research.
As of right now, I still plan on pursuing a career in research but with a newly improved perspective on the actual means of getting there along with the actual nature of the job. In the more short term future, I have just been hired to work at a laboratory position on campus. It is in the slightly different field of cellular and molecular biology which will entail research on a more broad level than just the brain. I will be able to apply the skills and practices that I learned over the summer to this job. During which I hope to learn new skills as well as broadening my own perspective toward the field of research. This is something that my mentor this summer highly stressed, the importance of training under multiple teachers to learn how to think about and approach a problem from more than one way. Another goal which I still plan on pursuing during my time as an undergraduate is the completion of an independent research project. During my time spent at Columbia this summer, I definitely learned a good deal about the pre-experiment process. This entails performing a seemingly excessive amount of research within databases to read as much as possible in all major and many minor publications, so that before the brainstorming process even begins the researcher will have gained a substantial foundation of knowledge from classic experiments to the newest, most recently published data. It is in this way that the scientific community truly flourishes, when scientists build off of the findings of both their contemporaries and historic researchers.