A Day in the Life of a Student Researcher

Are you studying for a career in the sciences? Not sure where to begin to gather that lab experience that is oh so important for obtaining your degree and landing a great job? Our Math and Science intern Wilson shares his experiences of finding his place as a student researcher and shares the four lessons he’s learnt both inside and outside of the lab.

Lab work doesn’t always involve looking down the lens of a microscope, one thing I learnt in my work as a student researcher studying autism spectrum disorders in children.

For almost 2 years now, I have been a student researcher at UCLA studying the physiology of anxiety in youth with autism spectrum disorders. This position has opened my eyes up to the professional, research-oriented community and taught me to dismiss some of the common misconceptions I had before I received this opportunity. Here are a few things I learned on my way to becoming a student researcher.

  • The application process is not that difficult. Where do I begin to look? This is common problem that many people have, and I had as well. Do I just search online for labs? How do I know if they are looking for student researchers? The answer is a lot easier and more straight-forward than one would think. The most common method for an undergraduate is to use the university website and find their page of open research positions. In a way, finding a research position is a lot like finding a job position, except your chances of success are much higher. Many professors and graduate students at universities are constantly looking for enthused students to help out at their lab, so the list of open positions is almost limitless and is constantly being updated.Here’s another effective method: just look up the department that you want to research for and email all the professors in that department asking if they have any room on their team for a student researcher. From my experience (I applied using both methods), they will usually respond within a day, and more often than not, one of them will welcome you to their lab. Perhaps the hardest part of this relatively simple process is being able to effectively convey your interest and enthusiasm for their field of study. Needless to say though, the resources are all right there. There’s no need to dig around.

  • There’s no need to feel intimidated. Although they may seem intimidating at first, at the end of the day, scientists are just ordinary people. When an interview was set in date for my position, I felt very nervous. One reason was because I only just finished my first year and felt as if I knew nothing about lab work or any of the more in-depth concepts of the human body. A second was because I didn’t want to be rejected, meaning I had to put on a best first impression for a figure of authority, an actual scientist who is so much more knowledgeable than I am. At the interview, I was expecting them to test me on the basic techniques of lab and the concepts of autism. I got very little sleep the night before because I was so busy studying up for this test that I thought was going to happen; however, there was no test. The scientist, or principal investigator (PI) of my lab, was very friendly and happy that I would be able to help out. They happily explained to me the paradigm of the study and what would be expected out of me. Most scientists, who are recruiting undergraduate students, understand that we may not have the most experience and exposure to research and laboratory procedures so they are very willing to educate and train us for whatever work we may be doing.

  • Not all scientists wear long, white lab coats and nerdy-looking goggles. My earliest impression of what a scientist wears comes from the show, “Dexter’s Laboratory.” Long, white lab coats and nerdy-looking goggles. At the very least, I’d thought we would be wearing professional attire, which is what I showed up in at our first group meeting, but soon learned that it was all very casual. If we weren’t dealing with the subjects (children with autism) and their family that day, almost anything goes. Most of us often wear t-shirts and jeans in the lab (I wear shorts because I can’t stand the feel of pants).

  • Test tubes, chemicals, and microscopes are not necessarily the essentials in every research lab. What?! No chemicals?! Not test tubes?! No microscopes?! What kind of lab is this? I had always thought that research consisted of mixing chemicals together or staring into a microscope, looking at cells, but not all labs involve working with dangerous chemicals or biohazards, which is why casual clothing is appropriate for our lab instead of personal protective equipment (PPE) like lab coats and goggles. Our research study involves a startle (have the subject experience several different situations that might cause anxiety, such as having a sudden puff of air blown near the face or being read a scary story), collection of salivary cortisol (a hormone that is released during states of anxiety), and surveys. As a student researcher, I get to assist during the startle with the subject (a child ages 7-14), such as attaching electrodes onto their skin to detect muscle contraction, monitoring their reaction through a camera, and running them through one of the nature reserve paradigms to observe their reaction to negative information. The interactions we have with the children and families at these startles are incredibly enlightening and inspirational, providing a sense of purpose in what we do and in all the hours we put forth to better understand this disorder. Outside of the laboratory, my responsibilities include entering data, analyzing electromyograms to validate each trial of the startle, or leading discussions regarding recent research findings on autism. Although less technical than a laboratory that requires the mixing of chemicals or analysis of biomolecular substances, this position has exposed me to how research in the “real world” is conducted, the process of applying for funding, and all the precautions and rules that a scientist must follow in dealing with human subjects.

My position as a student researcher at UCLA studying the physiology of anxiety in youth with autism spectrum disorders gave me a different look into the realm of scientific research. Although it may not be an ideal research position for a biochemist, such as myself, I am enjoying the role that I play in helping this team progress and reach our goal of better physiological understanding of this disorder so that a more valid diagnosis may be available. This just goes to show that there are lots of meaningful research opportunities out there for all different types of fields, whether it be in the applied sciences, arts, life sciences, social sciences, or engineering. So if you are currently an undergraduate or about to become one, take full use of your available resources, experience what it’s like to actually work in your field, and have fun doing it.