Life as a PUMA-STEM Undergraduate Researcher
By: Julissa Alvarado
"I was looking forward to learning and working collaboratively with other students, but difficulties began on my first day of research."
In June 2021, I started my journey as a participant in The Promotion of Underrepresented Minorities in Academic STEM (PUMA-STEM) summer research program at Elmhurst University. My research mentor was Dr. Amy K. Hebert, an Assistant Professor in the department of biology, and my research study focused on neuroscience; cytokines and cell death, their involvement and impact on inflammation, and how those interactions impact learning and memory.
I was given the options that I could either live on campus in a dorm or live at home. I decided to live at the dorm because commuting to Elmhurst University would have been difficult. I lived farther away and it would have made for a particularly tough experience. While living at the dorm, I discovered that sharing the living space with my lab partner was really challenging because we had few things in common, such as how to live in the same space together, expectations that we’d try to accommodate each other’s needs and personal lifestyles. As I worked with my lab partner, I began developing imposter syndrome. Because we could not communicate well, I felt that I was not making any progress with my her. Because of the imposter syndrome, I felt left out and would compare my performance to hers.
I was looking forward to learning and working collaboratively with other students, but difficulties began on my first day of research. One day in the lab, it took me a longer time to use a micropipette but my lab partner went faster. I found out that my lab partner already knew how to use it but I was totally new to pipetting. I felt that I had a huge learning curve to get over and ended up comparing myself to her. I felt isolated.
"I have learned to accept the reality of research at this stage of my career. Research takes time."
My mentor and I agreed to stay after the first day of my summer research to practice using the micropipette, petri dishes, slides, test tubes, and an incubator in order to acquaint myself with fundamental biology equipment. In retrospect, I would have preferred to have had other options to do my project, like working with other PUMA-STEM students, although I did enjoy the PUMA-STEM weekly meetings with students from different institutions.
Experiencing these hardships increased my stress. I decided to focus on my mental health. I decided to tell my mentor that I wanted to work on the research alone. Although I felt bad that my mentor wasn’t immediately okay with my decision, that decision helped me progress in my work. I also think that I could have talked to her about my learning disability and that might have helped her work with me.
Throughout the nine weeks of my summer research, I began making small improvements in my data recording and game management. The most difficult aspect was coming up with ideas for my first draft abstract and poster to present at the local LSMRCE (Louis Stokes Midwest Regional Center of Excellence) presentation. My mentor informed me that I would be conducting my data analysis independently during the final two weeks of the summer project. Throughout the month of July, I began collecting data from our model organism C. elegans, a small nematode, in order to explore how exposure to inflammation affects learning and memory including gene expression, cell abundance, and synaptic function. The data analysis did not always help us arrive at accurate results, but I learned that when measuring C. elegans responses, it might require more time to determine experimental effects.
I have learned to accept the reality of research at this stage of my career. Research takes time. In the beginning of my first research project, I experienced hardship. I doubted if I could continue as a participant. However, at the end I felt relief. My research project did generate results and my mentor provided me with good feedback for improvement. Although I had a somewhat difficult time learning my mentor’s communication style, in the end I received helpful advice about my future career path.
As someone with a learning disability, it will take me more time to do the work and I have learned that when conducting research, the experience might be a mixture of what is good, bad and neutral. I believe there should be accommodations available for individuals with learning disabilities that need specific support. Although this was my first research experience, I am becoming more aware of what kind of researcher I presently am. I've realized that I would like to conduct research focused more on neurodegenerative diseases.
Julissa Alvarado is an ILAC intern and is entering as a junior at University of Illinois -- Chicago.