So you want to do research

January 26, 2015

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8 tips for aspiring (or soon to be aspiring) researchers

Ever wonder why pizza tastes so good? Or how to save an endangered species? Or what people were up to thousands of years ago? So do researchers. And they all had to start somewhere. Even if you don’t think research is for you, you might want to think again.

Shaun Harper has always been interested in research, but did he picture himself studying the DNA of garlic mustard when he walked through the doors of MacEwan University three years ago? Definitely not. Today the fourth-year Biological Sciences student is doing just that. He’s presenting his independent research project on the extremely invasive plant species at Student Research Week.

Here’s some advice from Shaun that can help get you on the right track to making your first big discovery.

1. It’s okay to be afraid

Maybe the idea of doing research puts a big smile on your face. Or maybe it incites fear in your heart. Either way, it’s okay.

“Even though I’ve always wanted to do research, I was intimidated at first,” says Shaun. “It’s a huge undertaking, a lot of work and at first it can seem daunting, but don’t underestimate yourself. Sometimes you just have to jump in and see what happens. I was stressed out and my hands were shaking the first few times I worked my way through the process to extract DNA from plant material, but it didn’t take long for me to feel confident in the lab. The more I went through the process, the faster and more comfortable I got. Now it feels like second nature.”

2. Talk to your professors

Don’t wait for research opportunities to fall into your lap. If you even have the tiniest bit of interest, go talk to your professors or other students who are doing research.

“If I hadn’t approached my professor, I never would have gotten into this,” says Shaun. “I had never even heard of the Undergraduate Student Research Initiative (USRI) funds and I would have missed out on a great opportunity.”

3. Keep an open mind

You never know what you might find interesting. “I didn’t know what garlic mustard was when. Dr. Melissa Hills, my instructor, suggested it, but when I looked into it, it seemed really interesting. Now I’m looking for molecular markers in three infestations of this invasive weed.”

4. Get ready to read and write—a lot

Grant applications, literature reviews, documenting research findings—even if your research is in the field or in a lab, plan to spend your fair share of time in front of a computer.

These days, Shaun says that there’s a good chance you’ll find him in the library. “Part of the research is doing a literature review and by the end of the year I will have compiled about 150 references.”

5. Know there will be obstacles

Shaun’s original plan was to make his way through the 250 frozen plant samples he had collected and stored in an ultra-low temperature freezer by mid-September. A month later, he was only about a quarter of the way through.

“I didn’t get as far along as I wanted to last summer,” says Shaun. “The process wasn’t getting enough DNA out of the plant material, so we had to try a few different things—using a different reagent and coarse sea sand to try to grind the plant material down more and going back to collect some more samples to see if being in the freezer too long was affecting our samples.”

Trying different things meant ordering different supplies and waiting for them to arrive. “You have to expect that there will be some hurdles along the way and be prepared to be flexible.”

6. Embrace repetition

Whether you’re in biology or sociology, chances are your research is going to involve doing something more than once. Molecular biology, in particular, involves many small steps that are really precise—it’s basically like following the pickiest recipe where every microlitre matters.

There are about a dozen steps in the process of extracting the DNA from the plant material and Shaun works on four samples at a time. By the time he’s worked his way through all 250 samples, he’ll have followed the process about 60 times and put in 75 to 100 hours just extracting the DNA.

7. Learn patience

When a discovery is made or research is published, often we hear the end result, but not the whole story about just how long it took to reach it. Remember that research is a process—it can take a long time and a lot of work.

8. Reap the rewards

Doing research has many rewards and can open the door to lots of different opportunities—employment, graduate school and more research.

Shaun is hoping that this experience will help him when he applies for grad school, where he is interested in doing molecular biology-based research.

“You never know where your education might take you,” says Shaun. “When I walked through the doors at MacEwan three years ago, I didn’t know what life was going to hand me—I was just happy to find my classroom. Now I’m studying the DNA of an invasive species. It’s exciting to be part of a project that could eventually turn into something bigger.”

Want to learn more about Shaun’s research? Check out his research journal.

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