When Doris Wang ’04 came to Yale, she knew she liked neuroscience. But over her four years, her interest grew exponentially. By graduation, Wang’s neurophysiology work was in print — three articles on her research appeared in the Journal of Physiology and one ran in the Journal of Neurophysiology.
Submitting to national scientific journals is not just for adults at Yale, as many undergraduates have published their research alongside the work of faculty members.
Students, who sometimes begin projects as early as freshman year for their major or as a hobby, have ample opportunity to experience the laboratory environment and share their work with the larger scientific community. But while finding a lab with an eager Yale professor may be easy, the scientific process can be long and arduous, and, for many, it may seal their decision to remain in science or to move on to a different field.
Although research often fulfills the senior thesis requirement for science majors, many students have a deeper interest in scientific work. Joanna Lim ’05, began researching computer security in academia with molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Mark Gerstein the summer between her sophomore and junior year and published her results in the June 2004 issue of Nature Biotechnology.
“I wanted to spend my summers productively and wanted to experience the laboratory lifestyle,” she said. “I wanted to do research to explore it as a career option.”
Another student, Pamela Duque ’05, who spent her first two years at Yale as a chemistry major, said she was fascinated by the process of chemical research.
“I like the idea that you’re taking things that have inherent properties and seeing what happens when you put them with other things,” she said. “Magic happens, but it happens according to very real limitations, like the shapes of molecules and their energetic qualities.”
Duque, who is now an architecture major, published an article on carbon skeleton construction with her mentor, Chemistry Director of Undergraduate Studies John Wood.
Not all students, however, have a major in mind when they begin research. Mehul Kamdar ’05, who searched for molecules suited for nano-molecular devices with electrical engineering professor Mark Reed, said he had always been interested in research and had read about Reed’s lab. Doing research, Kamdar said, provided a way to figure out what he really wanted to do in the future.
With busy schedules, balancing classes and research can be a challenge. Lim pursued research that did not require many class hours, but some students have to work in the lab late at night or several days in a row to complete an essay or test, she said.
“At times, it has been hard to balance my time between class and doing research,” said Carolina Solis ’05. “This was especially true my junior year when I was studying for the MCAT at the same time, in addition to taking four classes.”
Although the work is challenging, students said getting involved in labs is not at all difficult. Kamdar said he sent Reed an e-mail expressing interest in his work and asked to meet with the professor. When they met, Kamdar said, Reed was glad to have a new student in the lab. Pathology professor Joseph Madri, who has been working with undergraduates in his lab since the early 1980s, said he encourages students to begin research early.
“If I can entice someone to come in as a freshman or sophomore, then they can stay in lab and usually do work for four years,” he said. “Then they can do something substantial and get a publication or two.”
One of Madri’s students, Janet Lee ’06, began working in the lab as a freshman. Lee said she started a project on brain inflammation in multiple sclerosis patients, which was published in the 2004 FASEB Journal, with a post-doctoral student because she had already done research in high school at the University of California, Irvine.
“The post-doc I worked with was really helpful,” Lee said. “He explained a lot to me, but also gave me a ton of journal articles to read.”
While students such as Lee come to Yale with research experience, others have never been in a lab. Lim said understanding the work done in Gerstein’s lab was initially difficult because she had little background in biochemistry. Yale School of Medicine neurosurgery professor Angelique Bordey, who has published work with three students, said she shows her students how to perform techniques so they can begin to work independently.
“We’ll meet regularly to talk conceptually about a project and ask ‘What’s next to do?’ and ‘Why do we do it?'” she said.
Bordey said she helps students choose projects based on their prior experience and what they enjoy doing most. One of her students, Wang, who published her four papers with Bordey while she was at Yale, started working in Bordey’s lab through the Perspectives on Science program. Wang said that although she was interested in science when she entered her freshman year, she had never participated in research.
Undergraduate students are assigned projects that are conceptually more simplistic than those she would give to a post-doc, Bordey said. Graduate students and post-docs, she said, begin work with a hypothesis, not knowing if the project will work or what they will find, but new undergraduates in the lab have freedom to explore different techniques and discover what they like.
“I tried some electrophysiology for fun and really fell in love with the technique,” Wang said. “The learning curve was slow because although I knew what to do, I didn’t understand the concept, but slowly I got a hold on it.”
Research in a lab is a long and involved process, and publishing is perhaps the icing on the cake. Lim said her lab emphasizes getting undergraduate research into print.
“My lab was very clear on its priority on helping undergraduates to be published,” she said. “Right now, I don’t know if my work will ever be published, but that’s okay because I’m learning a lot in the research process.”
For some, publishing seemed like a distant possibility when they started in the lab. As a freshman, Solis, who contributed to an article on immunity and hookworm infection, said the thought of publishing never crossed her mind. She said research has been an extracurricular activity she has pursued for enjoyment.
Epidemiology and public health professor Michael Cappello, who advised Solis, said the research and publishing processes cannot be separated. He said he designs projects that will allow students to discover what lab work is like, but also eventually have the opportunity to publish.
“I think students are more likely to really work hard if they know that their work will come to something,” he said.
The publishing process can be grueling. While the first author of a paper writes the manuscript for an article, the publication includes the work of many people, not all of whom may be cited. The article is then subject to peer review for corrections. Once an article is accepted in its edited form, experiments must often be repeated and tweaked.
The goals of undergraduates, Ph.D. students and post-doctoral students vary, Bordey said, which influences the type of work they do and the journals that publish their work.
“Post-docs need to publish in high-profile journals, but an undergrad needs to publish, period,” she said.
Bordey said Wang’s neurophysiology work was published in good, but not top, journals, which allowed her to get the project out into the world of science. Articles submitted to the highest caliber journals can take a long time to be processed and printed.
Publishing as an undergraduate can be a key factor in gaining admission to medical school and graduate programs in science. Wang, who is now an M.D./Ph.D. student at the University of California, San Francisco, said her undergraduate publications made her application much stronger.
Publishing, however, should not be the primary focus of research, Madri said.
“Publication is not the primary mission for undergrads in the lab,” he said. “The mission is to have them learn about science — how science is done, how science works. They need to learn techniques, how to evaluate data and how to present in lab meetings.”
Madri said a paper will usually follow research, but education is his primary goal for students in the lab. Research, as a learning process, helps some students to decide their future career path.
“Some people are going to say, ‘This is not for me,'” Madri said. “Going into science is like going into music or art — you’re doing it because you love it.”
Madri said only about 10 percent of scientific work is usually publishable, and researchers must understand rejection and be persistent and passionate about their work. For some of the Yale undergraduates who have published, their time in the lab has led them down paths other than science. Kamdar said although he had an incredible research experience, the process has helped him to discover his other interests.
“I’m still very much interested in research, but the class of problems I’m interested in has shifted,” he said.
For other students, such as Wang, working in the lab led to a career in academic science. Before entering the lab, she said, she was thinking only about medical school.
“Working in the lab is how I got interested in doing an M.D./Ph.D. program,” Wang said. “I fell in love with the lab, with the thinking process and the problem-solving process.”
Lee is continuing her work in the Madri lab by studying the proteins involved in brain inflammation. She said she is considering research as a career, but not purely as a part of academia. Solis will attend Harvard Medical School next year. Although she always wanted to be a doctor, she said, her lab experience made her consider combining research and clinical work in the future.
But perhaps after so many hours of hard work in the lab, publishing is not foremost in the minds of students. Kamdar said that working for months on a paper and finally publishing his work really was not the most exciting part of the process.
“The main thrill came just after we finished all the experimental work and all the analyzing, when I could finally present something worthwhile to all the team members in the lab,” he said.