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BIT SURE 2022 Participants Experience Research Outside of the Classroom

(Taylor Parker)

BIT SURE 2022 participants holding up the wolfpack hand sign after presenting their research posters at the OUR Summer Research and Creativity Symposium

As students get back into the swing of school, the Biotechnology Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (BIT SURE) participants find themselves looking back on their summer with the NC State Biotechnology Program. Each of the 14 students spent their summer working directly under a selected BIT instructor on a project relating to their specialty. The part-time, paid, ten-week position allows students to see what a full time job working in a biotechnology lab might look like – the good, the bad, and everything in between.

In addition to submitting a personal statement and form, the application for BIT SURE involves reading the detailed bios of the BIT mentor projects, noting which ones align best with your interests, and interviewing with the mentor you are selected to work with. Danielle Smith, a senior who worked with Dr. Hasley on environmental DNA this past summer, mentions how important it is to consider projects outside of your comfort zone. “Reading up on [Dr. Hasley’s] work, it definitely intrigued me,” she said. “Environmental DNA is not necessarily what I want to work on in the future, however, [the project] actually helped me learn that I like learning about the environment.” Danielle also mentions how important connecting with your mentor is. “A big part of the application process was the interview with Dr. Hasley,” she explained. “I felt very comfortable communicating with him and he reassured me that it was going to be a team effort.” Elise Van Zele, a junior who also worked with Dr. Hasley, also attested to how a mentor can influence the experience. “I wanted to work with someone who I could have fun, not always scientific and serious, conversations with,“ Elise said. “[Dr. Hasley and I] share a love for teaching and it was so cool to learn more about his teaching philosophies and approaches this summer.”

“I woke up everyday excited to see others in the department, which made the biggest difference.”

Chloe Cernoch, BIT SURE 2022

For Elise, it wasn’t expected she would be leaving this research position thinking about teaching methods. This is the case for many participants, including Chloe Cernoch, a sophomore who worked with Dr. Noel on assay development. Although Chloe isn’t pondering teaching, the program has opened her eyes to how important values become in the workplace. “I have a tendency to focus on what I’m going to be working with instead of who I’m going to be working with. I woke up everyday excited to see others in the department, which made the biggest difference,” Chloe said. Although biology and assay development are not what she plans on pursuing, Chloe’s experience this summer was well worth it because of these lessons she learned and the experience she gained. 

“I feel like my range of opportunities has just multiplied by a thousand now that I feel comfortable and excited to be in a lab doing something that I’m interested in.”

Elise Van Zele, BIT SURE 2022

You can’t learn without experience, which is what many of the BIT SURE participants were seeking. “Being a college student who started in the height of Covid, most of my labs have been online and without much physical lab work,” Elise said. “Since I didn’t have much experience actually working in a lab, I didn’t know if I was interested in jobs that involve research, or if I was interested in becoming a professor, or lab manager.” The only BIT SURE 2022 participants who started their career pre-pandemic are now seniors – and even they had less than a full year of in-person experiences. For science majors who are highly dependent on gaining lab experience, this has us all scrambling to learn what we actually enjoy before it’s too late.

Elise shared how the busy work weeks helped her realize what she had been missing out on and said, “I feel like my range of opportunities has just multiplied by a thousand now that I feel comfortable and excited to be in a lab doing something that I’m interested in.” Sam Doak, a senior who worked with Dr. Chen, found a passion for research itself. Because of BIT SURE, Sam decided that he thinks pursuing a PhD is the right path for him. “As a chemical engineer, the promises of enormous salaries in fields I am less passionate about are quite… alluring. But I know that I would be happier in the long [run] pursuing a job in research, and a PhD is an important step for that,” he said. Sam is continuing his research with Dr. Chen this semester under a grant that he received from the Office of Undergraduate Research

While Elise and Sam learned what they want to do with their careers, it’s just as important to figure out what you don’t enjoy. Parker Gorman, a sophomore who worked with Dr. Chen, explained to me that she is not continuing her research. “Working in the lab taught me that I wanted to use ‘known’ medical data to help people, not conduct medical research,” Parker said, which is completely valid! The great (and sometimes not great) thing about BIT SURE is that it’s only 10 weeks and has no strings attached – it’s the perfect length of time to determine your affinity for the job type. Parker also mentioned that even though she wants to explore options outside of research, her experience was still made great by the people involved.

Danielle Smith and Elise Van Zele present their research at the Summer Research & Creativity Symposium.

No matter how much or little background you have, research is daunting. Even for those who had previous laboratory experience, like Danielle and Sam, research is a whole different ballpark. There are things you get from a research role that students can’t get from laboratory classes, yet understanding science on that level is really important for knowing the type of scientific career you want to pursue. Danielle mentioned how her previous lab classes were low stakes; if something went wrong one week, the next week was something different and she didn’t have to think twice about the messed up samples. However, BIT SURE was different. “We had a few complications, and [it was hard] learning that not everything is going to happen the way it’s supposed to,” Danielle said. “Time plays a huge factor,” and that’s when the 10 weeks suddenly becomes too little time. Sam had a similar experience with transitioning from lab classes to research, saying “In a class setting, you’re always following predetermined protocols, and there are known expected results as the protocols have been tested repeatedly.  When performing research, you have to determine what the next best steps are from the data you have, and it is both challenging and fun to try and put the pieces together.” Learning to troubleshoot is hard to work into class curricula, but is nonetheless a great skill to have since it’s so valuable in all aspects of biotechnology and STEM. 

Parker mentions how she had no prior lab experience to BIT SURE. “Dr. Chen shared a similar passion [as me] for genetics, drawing me in. She was willing to take the chance on a freshman who hadn’t worked in a lab before. Did she have to answer a lot of questions and teach me a lot of lab skills? Yes. But her willingness, kindness, and patience is what made the experience so special,” Parker said. BIT SURE is a great opportunity for both those with lab experience and those without. Some students had already taken the core class (BIT410), some had taken various lab classes within their major, and some, like Parker and Chloe, learned all their skills from the program. “My rising sophomore status made me really anxious for starting at BIT SURE. I had never worked in a lab outside of limited chemistry class experiences, which led to a lot of uncertainty and lack of confidence towards the start of the program,” Chloe explained. However, her confidence grew quickly throughout the summer thanks to the other participants and mentors. The BIT SURE program is designed for students who may not have another opportunity to practice research outside of a class setting, and all experience levels are encouraged to apply. 

“She was willing to take the chance on a freshman who hadn’t worked in a lab before.”

Parker Gorman, BIT SURE 2022

As I was writing this article, three main takeaways stood out to me.

1) Whether or not you fall in love with research, the friends, connections, and experiences shared between mentors and participants make the experience worth it.

2) All experience levels are welcome, and no matter what level you are on there are always new experiences to gain.

3) There is a lot to learn about science that is better suited for a mentor-mentee environment.

If you’re interested in applying for BIT SURE 2023 and want to know more, feel free to check out the website. Updates will be posted closer to the end of the semester with applications typically due in early February. The BIT Program would love to have you!