By Shahan Kamal, OUR Peer Research Ambassador
Research happens in a lab, on a bench, with a bunch of microscopes and pipettes and bottles of various liquids on the side. Right? Sounds right to me…or at least it did. Research is so much more than that. It just might take a while before you realize that.
I remember the first time I met with a professor in his lab space to discuss the possibility of joining his group. I still distinctly remember looking around and having questions. Why are there freezers and fridges? There are so many computers here. Is that an ice machine? This is so different from what I expected. “The dry lab is across the hall.” What?
I learned plenty during my year in that research lab. I spent a lot of time learning about lab safety and protocols and all of the nitty gritty work that nobody talks about when they do research. Autoclaving bottles, solvent maintenance and regulations, hazardous waste removal, and item inventories were among the earliest of my experience. Wait why do I need to know any of this? How is knowing how to do any of this beneficial?
Obviously, these are critical skills that are necessary for success in a lab, allowing for efficient and organized work. You can’t get into the fun stuff without first learning the basics. After that I started to really get to “do research.” I was running experiments and performing embryo dissections in no time.
After a year, I decided to see what else was out there—what kind of research other professors are doing. I ended up getting accepted into the Health Research Program and spent a summer in Farmington, CT and I couldn’t have been more excited.
Why does this place look like it’s an office building? I see nothing but computers everywhere. Again, I was wrong in thinking I knew what I was getting into. Instead of a designated lab bench space, I was shown an office I’d be sharing, and I got a computer.
This was, as I’d very quickly learn, a “dry lab” and all of my work would be on a computer. I got to see the connection between programming and biology. I’d be learning how to use the program R, among others, to learn about Lynch Syndrome—a disease that predisposes people to Colorectal Cancer. Writing scripts, digging through repositories, and troubleshooting when I made inevitable errors in scripts was a type of research I had never done before.
By the end of a quick and busy summer, I had some meaningful research done and was able to present research at the Frontiers Poster Exhibition during the following Fall semester. As I walked around and saw the posters of the seventy some other presenters I started to realize how broad research can be. One student had made a comic book. Another was doing research on refugee integration practices in the state of Connecticut. A project studied the effects of language impairments on certain perceptions.
None of that matched my preconception of what research constitutes. All of it, however, was equally if not more impressive to me than my own work. In the end, research is just asking a question and following up. It takes countless forms and each requires mastery of numerous techniques. The research you do at UConn can change an entire field, change someone’s perspective on a topic, or even change the world for the better.
Shahan is a senior majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology. Click here to learn more about Shahan.