You can learn so much without feeling like you’re learning at all. As I described my research at Barnard’s summer research poster presentation session, I realized just how much knowledge I had gained from my experience in the Callahan lab. My language had become technical and specialized. I had to consciously explain the words that I used and be sure to use more general language. Without actively studying, I could explain t-DNA insertion knockout mutations, how robustness and variability both affect an organism’s fitness, and the life cycle of the Arabidopsis thaliana. I learned all of this through reading papers for weekly lab meetings and the everyday discussions of the lab. While I understand the importance of some textbook learning, the value of learning through practice cannot be understated. Along with understanding the information, I inadvertently understood the importance of the information. After all, the only reason I knew how variability relates to evolution and agriculture was because it was immediately relevant to the work I was doing.
I can definitely say that my understanding of science gained a new dimension as the result of my summer research. There were a few instances when I was genuinely thrilled that real-life science lined up with what I had studied. Even though I believed the textbooks, it somehow feels different when a mutated gene actually has the predicted effect on a plant’s phenotype. In designing my individual research project, I ran analyses of previous data, interpreted the results, and chose mutant seeds to regrow as part of my experiment on phenotypic variability. I was actually using the scientific method. As I continue the project, I will collect and analyze my results to see if the mutants I selected continue to reflect unusual variability. And the process will continue.
Beyond the thrill of witnessing the reality of prior scientific knowledge, I also felt a thrill associated with knowing that I was playing a part in the creation of wholly new knowledge. Nobody knows what the result or implications of my research will be. We have hypotheses rooted in the literature and prior experiments, but no one really knows. In my opinion that is the most profound difference between practicing and studying science—embracing the unknown. In class, everything we study has concrete answers. If we don’t understand something, we should read the textbook, study more, or go to office hours. In a laboratory setting, scientists must ask questions without known answers. That is the key to research. It’s always a little bit uncomfortable designing a methodology to find unknown results, but it’s also invigorating. I hope to continue in research, asking bigger and better questions, for much longer in my scientific career.
In the last few weeks at lab, I worked with another undergraduate student to create a poster and abstract summarizing our work over the summer. Because we will both be continuing our project next semester and have not yet collected our results, the poster provided background for our research and outlined our experimental methods. What really made the difference in my enthusiasm for the research was a sense of ownership over the project. Though my project takes place as part of the larger objectives of the lab, I feel a sense of individual responsibility for its outcomes. Most important in cultivating that accountability was the fact that my mentors allowed me to make my own mistakes (although no mistake that couldn’t be fixed). I laid out the experiment, which I could then tweak with the professor or lab technician. I ran my own analyses and created my own graphs in R even though the lab technician could have done them in a quarter of time it took me. Though I’m sure it had to be frustrating and sometimes stressful for them, I really appreciate the responsibility that the professor and lab technician gave me. It’s a lesson that I’ll remember when I have to mentor or teach in the future.