Not many people aspire to be a doctor. Many who do don't make the cut for some reason, are rejected from medical school with their hopes crushed and are left to contemplate the meaning of life. In an effort not to be one of those individuals, I decided to do undergraduate research in the neuroscience department at a large, public university. It was there that I found out the truth about science. Namely that most of the research going on at these Universities is done by undergraduates and graduates. The lab directors, or PI's delegate work to the graduate students who in turn let the undergraduates do all the work. These lowly, underpaid, and overworked (I feel that is a common theme in our society) undergraduates are doing brilliant research with no credit.
Chapter 1: The Beginnings of a Long JourneyEdit
“Well, what do you suggest I do to become more competitive as an applicant?” I asked the pre-health adviser. At this point in my college career, I still trusted his advice so I took to heart what he told me. Get science research experience: it doesn't matter where, just get some under your belt. Even though I had already done one semesters worth in a social psychology lab, I needed more. He told me everything else looked good: the study abroad in Italy, the community service tutoring disadvantaged children, the volunteer work in a hospital, and the solid science GPA nearing a 3.7. So I was confident, with this experience, I would become a more irresistible applicant.
After I left the advising appointment, I began to look for openings in science labs across the campus. I was most interested in doing neuroscience  research, an area of particular interest to me. I was confident that at such a large school there would be plenty of opportunities. This was shortly before the Fall term started, probably early August. But, with each inquiry into whether the undergraduate research position was still open, came the response of 'Sorry, we're already full.' As the semester loomed in the very near future, it was with sheer desperation that I responded to an e-mail from my former professor. He had heard I was looking for a lab to do neuroscience research and I had gotten an A+ in his class. This is just my luck, just what I need, I thought. I told him I would meet him the following day to take a tour of the lab and potentially set-up my schedule for the fall.
Everything went smooth the following day. During my tour of the lab, we talked about possible research projects. A former researcher had begun, but not completed, a physiology  experiment investigating the link between a behavioral response and the underlying associated physiology on praying mantids. So basically, I would be trying to figure out what is happening in the praying mantids' body during a change in behavior. As soon as I was trained (in the surgical procedures and equipment set-up), I was to begin this experiment. I would come in Tuesdays at 8 AM and work for three hours before class. Then, Wednesday afternoons and Fridays from 2 PM – 5 PM. I was excited to see how real science worked. I was excited to gain first hand experience and learn not from reading textbooks, but from doing experiments! Additionally, working with graduate students and other undergraduates, pooling our knowledge at the weekly lab meetings was going to be great to learn about what it means to get a masters or PhD.
The first few months started out well, as I was still naive and enthusiastic. It was exciting to be in charge of my own research project. It was amazing and borderline miraculous to see and hear action potentials  , the means of communication throughout our bodies, through the speaker and on the computer screen.
Chapter 2: Early Mornings Filled with Disillusionment and the Great Mantis Die-OffEdit
It was another early morning in the lab. Another frustrating morning. Once again, my experiment of the day was going nowhere as class was looming closer by the minute. A class in which I had a very important exam determining nearly one third of my grade. But I sat and looked at the poor mantis, thought about the wasted time of my perfectly executed microsurgery, and all I felt was bitterness. Bitterness towards praying mantids. Bitterness towards my professor and the grad students putting more and more work on my shoulders. Bitterness for being so naive. Bitterness towards science and action potentials. The semesters end was rapidly approaching and I had only shreds of data. I counted the hours wasted in the lab...instead of the expected 9 hours a week, it ranged more towards 15 weekly. At 15 hours a week, and 10 weeks having passed, that was 150 hours of lab time. And for what?! A few milliseconds worth of data. And, it wasn't like the graduate students were of any help at the weekly lab meetings. They were too busy working as teaching assistants, side research projects, or preparing for their dissertation defense. A lot of the time I spent alone was wasted though, I am rather excellent at procrastinating. I found this a common theme amongst my lab partners and my fellow undergraduate researchers throughout the campus. Maybe science just moves to slow for me.
This feeling of bitterness, though, was becoming more and more common. Each time I went into lab my stomach tightened and I started to sweat. Just the thought of the microsurgery made me slightly nauseous. The thought of being all alone in that tiny room trying so hard to get good, clear data. The physiology experiment that I was so excited about just a few short months prior was turning into my real-life nightmare. Increasingly I was frustrated as to the one specific question my work focused on. What does it matter if a there are three or four neurons being stimulated? And, why does my professor care so much? Is that normal to be so obsessed with bugs? It should be mentioned that I felt this way because each failed experiment led me to question my abilities as a competent researcher and undergraduate. I'm good at things, and failing at anything is not something that is easy for me to accept. I also believed that my shortcomings in my research would translate into not being invited back to do research. Even though I dreaded facing the bugs, I dreaded even more not having this experience. I needed this experience to help solidify my future. I couldn't fail. These sentiments I found permeated the undergraduates who were working in labs throughout campus as well. They questioned why they were burdened with so much work. At first they were excited to see science first hand but then became disenchanted, like I had.
Needless to say, it was a great relief to me that with finals and winter break came a respite from the lab. It was an even greater relief when I returned to lab in the spring semester and our mantis population had been decimated. No, I do not wish death on the innocent creatures. But, it appeared that the disgruntled animal caretaker decided to neglect the bugs resulting in the Great Mantis Die Off. The species that I had been doing physiology research on did not make it through the winter. My experiment would have to be halted. In the meantime, there was a new interesting species that made interesting movements. It was decided that a lab partner and I would look more into that. I was free of the physiology!
Chapter 3: All the Fun I Missed and Long Summer Days in the
Second semester senior year. This is the time memories are made. This is one last semester to be young, to be free, to be irresponsible, to have more than a few drinks on more than a few nights of the week. Unfortunately for myself, this happened to coincide with MCAT  preparation while taking the hardest possible classes. This in addition to maintaining my hours in the lab, at the hospital, and the community service. One sad afternoon I decided to count how many hours per week I spent in class. It was 40. I always enjoyed a balanced life, but it was seeming to be more and more difficult to achieve. All of the "wish you were here" text messages made me feel like I was missing out on something perhaps more important than this research.
Even though I was still working in the lab, the behavioral experiment was much more bearable. For one, I collaborated with a partner. Thus, my hours were no longer spent in isolation but now gossiping with a friend. It helped that I was earning class credit for this experience unlike in the previous semester. A lot of the time, with my partner we procrastinated. With two people, it is definitely much easier to not do work than do work. This procrastination led to such classic discoveries as praying mantis versus mouse  and giant hornet versus mantis . Did you know that there was even a movie, the Deadly Mantis? . Needless to say, our project crawled along at a snails pace. But we undergraduates were happy to procrastinate. With minimal oversite from the graduate students, we were basically free to run the experiments at our own pace. Plus, the bugs are even kind of cute in their own sort of way.
When my professor offered to pay me for my research if I continued the project over the summer, I accepted. I was pleased to not have to include a job hunt in my hectic life and the hours would be flexible, allowing me ample time to continue to prepare for the MCAT and to take a summer biology class.
I greatly underestimated the impact of collaborating with my lab partner who I grew to like as an individual over our shared laughs at praying mantids and the point of it all. As the summer progressed, the lab became, once again an isolating and thoroughly depressing experience. All alone, I went back to my ways of wandering the halls in between trials and trips to the student union. This on top of two hour lunch break meant me and my fellow lab mates (who worked upstairs) got as minimal work done as possible. The days of summer passed but I had no sun-kissed skin. In fact, I hardly even saw my friends between work, studying for the MCAT, and applying to medical school. I can only think of all that summer fun that I missed. In the name of science, though.
Chapter 4: My Research Meant Something...?Edit
One boring lab meeting around the end of summer, some good news came. A conference was coming up and my professor needed some research to present. By this point, my project had a lot data and it looked pretty good (surprising, even to myself). My research was in! Now, I just needed to analyze hundreds and hundreds of meticulously run trials. This brought me near to a very nice, new and shiny computer. Have you heard of g-mail ? Well it is pretty amazing , in case you didn't know. And the reason why this is pertinent to our discussion is because I became in possession of a g-mail account at about the same time that I began to analyze this data. G-mail is nifty and I love it because it can appear as if you are checking your e-mail when in fact you are talking to your friends. Another source of procrastination! G-mail is the ultimate tool for procrastination and as a matter of fact, I am on it at this moment.
So are digital shorts from Pixar . Have you seen the for the birds ? It is definitely my favorite. After working so long with the mantids, I tend to get easily distracted. It also multiplies exponentially when graduate students and other lab partners are around. They actually do the most limited amounts of work possible. They pass of experiments for undergraduates.
Well, back to the research. Kind of. I had hours of videotape to painstakingly analyze. Over a period of three months working about six hours a week, I got through it all. With the help of g-mail and my lab partners, I kept my sanity and painstakingly generated a poster. By this time, you must understand my sincere desire to never see a praying mantis ever again.
Finally my poster was complete. However, not up to national conference standards. All my work was immediately erased and I started basically from scratch. Now with my professor watching over my shoulder, I got the poster done just in time for him to hop on a plane to the conference. I envisioned that this would be the long awaited end of my career with the mantids but sadly it was not to be!
Good thing I have g-mail.
Chapter 5: The End is Not in Sight and I am a Resistible ApplicantEdit
As I come within a week (!) of finishing my undergraduate career, the end of my research is not in sight. I cannot resist the offer to turn my presentation into a paper for publication in a national journal. This would help me get something, namely a really awesome blurb on my resume. Not to mention the exciting feeling that all those hours meant something. That I contributed to science. Finally, I understand the long process of science. Also, each rejection from medical school hammers home that I am a resistible applicant. All the time I question what to do to become more irresistible, what more is there to humanly do? Because I don't want to ponder the meaning of life. I've got it figured out, thank you very much.
As I reflect on my experience, I realized a lot of the research isn't for the love of learning and it is certainly not for the love of the particular area of study (especially for undergrads!). Its purpose is to get things. To get a PhD for those eager graduate students, an associate professor position from those post-doc researchers, a tenured position, or an experience to put on an application for the undergraduates. The undergrads are the least credited although they may be the most responsible for making sure experiments don't fail. They meticulously count worms, punch in countless hours of data, and look up relevant publications. But, isn't it ironic that these projects are placed in the hands of those who may care least about them? And, can you even begin to imagine how much advanced we would be as a society if procrastination was eradicated?! What if there was no g-mail? My world might just end. The irony of my experience is common among most undergraduate researchers. Even though we may detest at times the work we do, we persevere. We persevere for years on end to toil on projects we may have no interest in. All in the name of science, or maybe in the name of self-interest.
There are two extreme endings to the story of the undergraduate research assistant.
1. Our undergraduate researcher gets sucked further into the lab, agreeing to work towards a masters degree because she believes this will help her become a more irresistible re-applicant to medical school.
2. Our undergraduate researcher gets into medical school. What clinches the deal: her work as an undergraduate researcher.
What do you think she deserves?