Hello everyone! My name is Katie Zentner, and I’m an undergraduate pursuing my degree in Environmental Science with a focus on Biology at the University of Washington Tacoma. In winter quarter of 2016 I became an undergraduate research lab assistant, and it has been one of the greatest academic accomplishments of my college career. Even when I started I knew I had a lot to learn—besides the experience gained from courses in my major—and I continue to learn more to this day. The idea behind writing this blog post is to inspire and prepare future students pursuing research by highlighting what I’ve learned along the way through detailing my own experiences and stories—so if you’re reading this, I hope to inspire the future scientist in you.

5 Things I’ve Learned Along the Way (So Far)

As I mentioned before, I’ve learned a lot more than lab techniques and pipetting skills, so here are the top 5 lessons I’ve learned while becoming a student researcher:

  1. Never forget who helped you get where you are today, and never stop networking. Doing anything related to your field of study, whether its going out for a quick lunch break with a classmate or going to a professor’s office hours, is a networking opportunity. You never know who you’re going to meet or who is going to come up in conversation that you’ll want to meet, so always have your networking face on. This is easier than it may seem, especially given that most faculty and staff, especially in my case at UW Tacoma, want you to succeed—they have all been in your shoes at one point or another, and most want to be the person they wish they had run into as an undergraduate. Connect with them by going to office hours even if you don’t have any questions about the class. This is a perfect opportunity to ask them questions about their careers and gain helpful insights to guide your own path.
  1. Do NOT fake it until you make it: always ask questions. It is so much better to feel completely stupid for a few minutes than spend days knowing you’re falling behind in class because you don’t understand a fundamental concept. And yes—a few days makes a HUGE difference in college time with how fast classes have to move to cover all the material. Not to mention that in real world applications, especially when working in a lab, it is often dangerous when you don’t ask questions. One false chemical can ruin the experiment, or one incorrect technique can be toxic. This also isn’t just beneficial for yourself—professors absolutely love questions because it shows you’re engaged in the material, and it also gives them a good idea of your understanding to adjust their teaching technique. Long story short, everyone will benefit from you asking questions, so don’t be afraid!
  1. Be ready to adapt. Lab work is a series of trial and error that can’t be planned. Part of being a researcher is understanding you don’t know the answer, and finding one can take a lot of time, energy, and changes made to ideas you reeeally thought would work. In my case, It’s all part of the process, and so if you like puzzles and critical thinking, lab research is for you!
  1. Trust in the process. By process, I’m talking about everything you’ll no doubt at one point question the usefulness of—pipetting techniques, annotated bibliographies, and what seems like endless labeling of every container you use, down to the last microliter eppendorf tube, just to name a few. I’ve learned to love these processes, and others like them, because as it turns out they’re crucial, which explains why they’re practiced in the first place. Use this time to practice it all, because I guarantee you’ll appreciate the practice when a properly cited source can be what gets you that graduate degree, and that proper pipette technique is what gets you that dream job.
  1. Have fun. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned throughout this entire experience so far. Don’t get me wrong, responsibilities like this are meant to stress you out to help you perform at your best, but don’t get lost in all the anxiety. Remember what this is: a safe learning environment to help you practice real-world application of the topics you’ve learned in your classes. That’s so cool! Don’t be afraid to picture yourself in a CSI episode when you’re running qPCR, ride your swivel chair across the tile floor in your lab coat just to grab a pipette because it looks and feels cool, and no matter what, make sure you post ALL of it on social media to show everyone else how cool you are. Don’t forget to look back at how far you’ve come and be proud of yourself.

Laboratory: Expectation vs. Reality

  • Expectation: Working with chemicals to make super cool reactions that’ll puff with smoke or change color.
    • Reality: Water, along with a bunch of other clear solutes that don’t do anything on a macro level. Which is why it’s always important to label everything!
  • Expectation: Getting perfect results every time that prove or disprove your hypothesis exactly how you planned it.
    • Reality: Honestly, anything goes. You don’t know the answer and you’re not supposed to, but one way to find it is to find 1000 wrong answers first!

Yes, they’re simple, but make sure you know them!

Sometimes we can get so focused on advancing our education to allow us bigger and better opportunities for success, but its so easy along the way to forget the simplest things that are so critical to fundamental knowledge because we don’t put them in to practice—but then we’re embarrassed to ask how to do them because they should be so simple! Here are just a few simple techniques everyone needs to know, and everyone should probably brush up on:

  • Unit conversions—and powers of units
  • Significant figures
  • Diluting solutions.
  • Pipetting techniques—yes, I’m mentioning them again!
  • Parts of a scientific paper—and what each should include.

All About Scholarships, Grants, and other forms of MONEY

Every step you take that brings you closer to your career goal, whether it be declaring your major or pursuing an internship, narrows the scope of possible applicants for specific scholarships and grants. For example, there are a ton of scholarships available that are ONLY available to those pursuing a biological or environmental science degree. There are also scholarships specifically for your standing in college. Use every characteristic and position you have or have had in the past to your advantage. Many think the task of applying for scholarships is daunting, but of course—I would feel that way too if I were applying to a general scholarship with hundreds of thousands of applicants. But there are so many awards out there, including awards offered through the school, that are under applied for—so what’s the harm in applying, right?

Interviews with Other Researchers

Here are some sample questions to get you started in talking to other researchers about their careers.

  • When was the first moment you realized you wanted to become a scientist?
  • What’s one piece of advice you wish you could tell your high school self?
  • What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done in the lab?

The Life of an Undergraduate Researcher