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  • Elitsa Ilieva

Becoming a Scientist

I think it’s a clear sign that it’s my third semester in the Kaplan lab by the fact that I enjoy the smell of a big batch of bacteria that has just undergone bioproduction, which is a way to grow huge quantities of this bacteria. The group that I am working with is geared towards developing silk elastin-like polymers, which revolves around procedures with DNA that we want to see turned into protein by bacteria. It’s definitely a big time commitment, with weeks up to 12 hours, yet a day without going into the lab feels unusual and empty.

Walking down the hallways of the Science and Technology building (after answering tons of questions about where SciTech is; its behind 574!) in my lab coat is when I feel like a true scientist that can solve anything. I always laugh when I think about my first days at the lab. I

came in with no experience with the biological processes and research techniques my mentor was telling me about and was scrambling to write everything down in my notebook. I started off with just shadowing, but soon enough my mentor trusted me enough to let me be the one doing certain steps under his supervision. I still get nervous when he looks over my shoulder with an analytical gaze, but now I’ve gained the confidence to keep pipetting, spreading bacteria on plates, and loading gels with a steady hand.

Through this journal and being around undergraduates involved in research, I’m continuously amazed by the wide variety of research thriving and developing at Tufts. Given this is an undergraduate research journal, I was inspired to turn the spotlight onto my undergraduate friends. I heard about a variety of research, from nitrogen regulation pathways of bacteria cells to sex education for adolescents with autism, and heard an amazing mix of takeaways from this work.

Through her work with the nitrogen regulation pathway, Alex found the artistic side of research, saying that she “enjoys the creative thinking that comes with research and just sitting with the data, connecting it to science, and coming up with following experiments.” She also felt the initial transition into accepting mistakes and all outcomes: she mentions that “an obstacle she faced with the methodical, yet often random manner of the research process is to be comfortable with uncertainty- to accept that the results may not always be as I expect.” Her and I are forced to grapple with this often during our organic chemistry lab experiments, and I am glad to have her perspective. At the end of each day in her research lab and in organic chemistry lab, Alex knows that this is building her discipline, patience, and persistence.

Even obtaining a position in a lab as an undergraduate can require patience and persistence. Amelia said that it took her 7 follow up emails until she was able to finally start attending weekly research meetings, but is not easing into a more active role in the lab that she loves. She has found an unexpected community with the other students, PhD candidates, and the professor in the lab, and is enjoying and learning from even casual discussions about their “path of getting into science and why they are passionate about what they do here.”

The transition from your first day to being confident enough to do entire parts of the protocol independently seems easy enough yet difficult at the same time. There is a huge difference in what you learn in your textbook versus what you do in the lab, whether that has to do with getting used to your mentor’s unique procedures or accepting that you won’t always have success even though you followed all the steps properly. It’s also about knowing the intricacies and purpose of the process well enough to know at which step you can afford to take a break to work on another ongoing task, and how bad the mistake you made actually is. Either way, this process is different for everyone, but once you get over that first learning curve and have that amazing feeling of “wow, I just did that!” it all becomes worth it and the desire to feel that rush again is what motivates you to come into the lab again the next day.

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