Earlier this year, I scoured Boston University’s UROP lab listings for a lab to join for the summer. I must have sent dozens of emails to some of the most random and “out there” departments, desperate to secure a position before it was too late.
First, an aside. While I love Boston University’s Biomedical Engineering department, I do have one major gripe with it: much of its research, in my experience, seems to be based on the microscopic scale, focusing on molecular-level projects. For example, my faculty advisor is heavily invested in protein folding and synthesis. Though this is not a negative thing by any means — on the contrary, lots of groundbreaking research is being done by many of my professors — it just doesn’t suit me personally. I’ve never found bench work particularly exciting.
Another disclaimer: there’s nothing wrong with liking bench work! Several of my friends are very involved with their respective lab groups, blazing the trail toward a cure for cancer, an artificial pancreas, a “lab on a chip”, the list goes on! It’s just honestly and truly not for me.
So what do I want to do? Well, that’s another story for another day. Let’s put it this way: I want to make things. At the end of the day, I want to have a physical object, even maybe a couple of functions and scripts on my computer, that can do something. When all is said and done, I want a tangible, working prototype in my hands. Call me impatient, but I’m not satisfied with preparing samples and running PCR and preparing reagents and whatever else these labs do.
Returning to my original point — I received just two responses out of all of the emails I sent out. The first, received only a few days after sending out my initial inquiry, was from a professor who works at the lab where I currently am interning, which I will discuss soon. The second, which came a couple of weeks after, was from another lab, where I would be doing work that, on paper, I would be much more interested in.
At the latter lab, I would have been working on microfluidic devices, similar to the “lab on a chip” I mentioned before. I had some experience with these devices in one of my classes, where my professor was actually a part of this lab and brought in samples as a presentation.
When I received this email, I was torn. I had already started communications with the first lab and things looked promising. I was already so invested in it that I decided to turn down the second offer within minutes of receiving it. At first, I rationalized my decision, telling myself that I would be doing boring bench work, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything actually useful. Then, I felt regret: Why didn’t I ask for more details? Why didn’t I come in and just talk to them? Why didn’t I talk to my professor about the position? Why didn’t I just drop the first lab instead? Weeks passed, and these thoughts still lingered, but too much time had passed. They’ve probably offered the position to someone else, I reasoned.
My personal progress at the first lab had been slow throughout the semester. I would have weekly to bi-weekly meetings with the principal investigator, a grad student, anyone really, just to see what my project could be. The UROP deadline passed and I still did not have a concrete idea of what I would be doing. Every time I went, new possibilities popped up. Many of the things I could have done were completely outside of the things I had encountered in class, involving robotics and coding with elements of neuroscience and psychology. This was, in fact, part of the reason I felt so overwhelmed — there were so many things I could do, but because I had no experience with them before, I didn’t even know where to start.
Eventually, however, as the summer began, I settled into a desk and chair at the lab and was given an arsenal of “toys” to play around with, as well as set day-to-day tasks. The duties of those around me, as well as how my projects tied into theirs, began to unfold, and I started to understand what exactly would happen and what part I would play in the bigger picture.
I ❤ MATLAB
Looking back, I don’t regret my decision. At the end of the day, the one thing I want to take away from my time in the lab will be coding experience. Ideally, by the end of the summer, my team will have several concrete pieces of evidence that say, Hey, this is what we worked on all summer. I’ll be able to upload some code to GitHub, maybe even upload a video or two to YouTube. The lab itself is incredibly friendly and I’ve met several smart yet down-to-earth people. What do I have to complain about?
Will I ever know what I missed out on by turning down the other opportunity? (Well, truth be told, I could very well still work in that lab as well, say, for my senior project. That would actually not be a bad route at all…) As for right now, I’ll have to say no, I won’t ever know what I missed out on. Maybe the position was completely different from what I expected. Maybe the PI is a terrible person. Maybe one of my coworkers could have been the Maid of Honor at my wedding. Maybe I could have knocked over some important samples and ruined weeks’ worth of progress. Maybe I could have published a paper.
If I’ve learned anything from this entire ordeal, it’s that I just need to take things as they come. There’s no point in worrying about the routes that I could have taken. At this point, the most important thing will be for me to get as much as possible out of my internship, my summer job, hell, I want to get as much out of this entire summer as possible.
I don’t know if I’ll even have any more of these I’ll have after graduation!