Research Communications

Lab Lessons 

A life in research: Student scientists at Edison Biotechnology Institute get a first glimpse

September 20, 2010

From diabetes and obesity to cancer, undergraduate student scientists at Ohio University’s Edison Biotechnology Institute have a chance to explore – and find solutions to – some of the biggest medical issues facing America today. But what’s in it for the students? John Blischak and Ellen Lubbers recount some of their top “a-ha!” moments about participating in research:

1.    RESEARCH ISN’T BORING.

       Lubbers, a junior from Columbus, Ohio, recalls that she expected life in the lab to be a bit dull—“lots of work for a few small bits of data” — with little responsibility or freedom. To her surprise, she found her project on the impact of fat tissue on the body to be incredibly engaging. “I’m even asked to do background reading to help figure out what the next bit of lab work should focus on, and have a hand in steering the future research of the lab,” says Lubbers, who recently co-authored an article about the team’s study findings in the Journal of Gerontology.
John Blischak and Ellen Lubbers conduct research
John Blischak, above, and Ellen Lubbers conducted research under the guidance of scientists Ed List, Darlene Berryman, and John Kopchick.

2.    PREPARE TO FAIL. IT’S A GOOD THING.
       “There’s a lot of failure in research that students don’t experience when performing lab exercises for class,” notes Blischak, an Akron, Ohio, native who studied how growth hormone can lower fat in the liver. “Failing is necessary because research wouldn’t be interesting if you already knew the outcome of the experiment.”


3.    SCIENCE AND COMMUNICATION GO HAND IN HAND.
       “I think one of the biggest myths is that scientists and engineers don’t need to have good writing skills,” says Blischak, who was one of only 278 students nationwide to receive the prestigious 2009 Goldwater Scholarship. From writing grants to fund their research and authoring articles about the study results, to speaking to the public about the significance of the work, scientists need excellent written and verbal communication skills, he notes.


4.    RESEARCH MAKES YOUR MAJOR COME ALIVE.
       Lubbers’ study gave her a much better understanding of her major, biological sciences, she reports. “I think it has been very beneficial for me to experience the applications of what I learn in class,” she says. “It makes the course material seem to matter more.”


5.    LAB WORK LEADS TO GRAD SCHOOL.
       “Hands-on research is absolutely necessary if a student plans to attend graduate school,” says Blischak, who notes that this is one of the first questions applicants will get during interviews. If an undergraduate student understands the successes and failures of the lab, as well as how his work fits into the bigger picture, he’ll be more likely to land a spot in grad school. Blischak should know: He started a doctoral program at the prestigious University of Chicago this fall.


6.    PREPARE TO CHANGE YOUR PLANS.
       Both Blischak and Lubbers originally planned to pursue medical or physical therapy school, but their undergraduate research experiences have pulled them onto a somewhat different path. Blischak is now pursuing a career in scientific research, and Lubbers—who spent summer 2010 working at the Mayo Clinic—is considering a combined M.D./Ph.D. program.


7.    GET READY TO MEET THE BIG PLAYERS IN YOUR FIELD.
       Another perk of research? The students had the opportunity to travel across the country to present the results of their research at professional scientific meetings, where some of the biggest names in the field took notice. “I was surprised by how many people were interested in my research,” Blischak says. “Most undergraduates don’t have the opportunity to discuss their research with colleagues from all over the world.” Adds Lubbers: “It was exciting to see that ‘famous’ researchers are interested in the work that I have done and that they think my results and future work are valuable.”

By Andrea Gibson

This story will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.