As part of a series that I have been doing on this blog (see here and here), I asked an undergrad that has been working in my lab for about 2 years, Annie Rudasill, to write a blog post about what research in my lab has been like for her. If you are interested in doing research as an undergrad, I hope you get something out of her post!
Working in a research lab as an undergrad is a unique experience anywhere, but it’s especially exciting at a university with no graduate students. Don’t get me wrong – the graduate students from other schools I’ve met have all been really nice, and I hope to be a graduate student myself soon – but working in a lab with no graduate students gives you a sense of freedom and power you don’t get when you have another student looking over your shoulder. I’m free to do my own research and I’m allowed to guide my own project and use whatever tools I deem necessary. I get experience I wouldn’t get elsewhere. There’s no one around to make me weigh out x-number of soil samples or to tell me to wash the dishes. There’s no middleman between me and my advisor. Of course I still have to do chores at the end of the day, but it’s they’re my chores. The best part, though, is getting invaluable experiences that are not only preparing me for my future career, but are allowing me to make new friends and learn new things about the science that I love.
When I first transferred to Radford University, I was brand new to biology. I was previously a music major, then an English major, and then an “I have no idea what I want to do with my life” general studies major. When I was nearing the end of my associate’s degree I just happened to take a general biology course that I loved. In an unrelated series of events, I overcame my fear of spiders and insects that same semester, which I had been deathly afraid of my entire life. When applying to local schools to pursue my bachelor’s degree, I took these two life-changing events and ran with them. I enrolled as a biology major with a focus in environmental biology, and sought to do research with any faculty that might get me close to creepy-crawlies. Coincidentally, Dr. Prather was my professor for freshman-level ecology, worked with grasshoppers, and was looking for students to join her lab.
Being in Dr. Prather’s lab has been radically different from what I originally imagined working in a lab would be like. It’s not just an advisor meeting with students for a few hours a week. It’s an open exchange of ideas, it’s the sharing of techniques and best practices, and it’s driving each other to think about problems from new perspectives. It’s a special niche within a relatively large department that makes you feel like you have people to go to when you need to vent. Most importantly to me, it’s a close-knit group of badass women literally playing with bugs and dirt. What could be better? Since the start, I’ve been out in the field catching and identifying insects and spiders. I’ve mastered the art of leading discussions on scientific papers. I’ve learned how to write grant proposals and CVs, and of course, I’ve carried out my own research, which is arguably the most valuable thing I’ve done as an undergrad.
My undergraduate research project tested to see if grasshoppers could detect the presence of micronutrients in grass, and to see if they had preferential feeding that would suggest that some of the micronutrients could be a limiting factor for grasshopper abundance. In terms of ecological research practices, I certainly covered the basics. I wrote a grant proposal and got funded. I put in a ton of time in the field: catching grasshoppers, digging up native soil, growing grass, potting grass, adding nutrients to grass and so on. I also spent a lot of time in the lab weighing out micronutrients, identifying grasshoppers, and running feeding trials. I made graphs and ran statistics. I got some useable data. I got some not-so-useable data. I presented my findings to parents, faculty and my fellow students. There’s no doubt it was a stressful experience at times. I’m an environmental biologist; I’m not huge into coming into the lab only to see that my plants or, even worse, my grasshoppers had died. When fall came on too quickly and the grasshoppers I needed for the feeding trials started disappearing, it almost felt as if all my hard work had been a waste. But of course, it wasn’t. I walked away with a ton of experience, some really cool data about plant growth in response to micronutrient fertilizer, as well as the respect of my peers. It was awesome, and it never would have happened if I hadn’t been a part of Dr. Prather’s lab.
At the end of the day, doing undergraduate research is a must for anyone interested in a career in the biological sciences. It’s incredibly rewarding, not just in terms of learning techniques but in terms of friendships and mentors and just having a good time. Maybe that’s a little nerdy to say, but it’s true. Sure, you have to put in a lot of hard work when you do ecological research, but some of my best memories as an undergrad come from my lab group. I’ll never forget going out in the field for the first time and seeing beautiful spider webs strung up between tall blades of grass, something I never would have thought to look for before, or tearing apart damp bark with my own hands to look for what might be hiding inside. I’ll never forget discussing papers and projects over our end-of-semester picnic, or feeding baby wolf spiders while discussing the latest department drama with my peers. Mostly, I’ll never forget how appreciative I am of such a fun and intelligent team of people to work with. Going forward in the hunt for graduate school, my standards are set pretty high. It’s going to be hard to find a group as awesome as my current one, but at least now I know what I’m looking for.