In January and February of this year, I put together half a dozen applications to biomedical research internships in Michigan. To say that I was cautiously optimistic would be a reach — more honestly, I was just cautious. It seemed like everyone else I knew already had research experience, and writing “zero” as my number of previous research hours felt like a reminder that I wasn’t as competitive of an applicant as I could be. However, I kept telling myself that the worst that could happen was rejection, so I sent them out and (not so) patiently waited.
In March, I opened my inbox to a congratulatory email stating that I’d been selected to participate in the University of Michigan Medical School’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Physiology (SURP) program. I don’t think even five minutes elapsed between receiving the email and sending my reply accepting the offer. Practically, I’d been attracted to this particular program because of the fairly generous stipend and housing allowance, which were necessary for me to afford rent on my house in Ann Arbor and pay for applications to MD programs over the summer and fall. But of course, I was even more excited (and a little terrified!) by the idea that I would be working on graduate level research in my field of study, neuroscience. More specifically, I’d be studying aging, which has been an area I have given a significant amount of thought to as I wonder if I could have a future as a palliative care physician. And I guess being able to say that the NIH was funding my participation didn’t hurt either.
Walking into the Biomedical Science Research Building as a (temporary) employee at the medical school has felt surreal this first week, like I’m somehow not old enough or educated enough to be there, even though I have not once in my training felt out of my depth. On my first day, I drew an apparently rare “perfect!” from my post-doc when I accurately scored my first set of Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies) based on sex. I was also thrilled to find that I understood almost all of the review literature I was assigned to read, including the genetics aspects with their overwhelming italics and abbreviations that rarely actually work like abbreviations are supposed to.
One of my goals throughout this internship is to continue to improve my scientific literacy; I want reading primary literature about topics relevant to my research to be as easy as picking up the next book in a familiar series — a lot of the same characters, just doing some different things this time around. While improvements in this area will surely make me more effective in communicating with other scientists, I also hope to learn ways to share our research findings with non-scientists. The research being performed in my lab does not yet have direct implications for humans, so it can be difficult to convey how relevant what we are learning from tiny flies is. However, some of my lab’s discoveries about how sensory perception can alter longevity are already changing how we think about the neuroscience of aging, from the nematode worm to the fruit fly, all the way up the phylogenic tree to humans. I would consider my summer a success if I could convince a stranger on the street that this has the power to dramatically change how we think about getting older.
I probably won’t be talking to too many strangers on the street about my research, but the network I will build is an important part of my vision for this summer. I hope to make friends with many other research fellows, two of which are now my temporary roommates, and to also add a letter of recommendation from my principal investigator (PI) to my MD application.
Or maybe I could just send medical schools video evidence of how good I’ve gotten at sorting flies under a microscope. I’m sure that counts for something.