Written by Claire Gianakas
Adlai E. Stevenson, former American politician and presidential candidate, once said, “we can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.” Although Stevenson was speaking with reference to a political campaign, the concept is also highly relevant to the modern research process. In order for innovation to occur in any field, researchers cannot be ignorant of past endeavors. They must be well-versed in prior research and able to expand upon and apply old ideas to new, unfamiliar situations.
How can researchers ensure a well-founded knowledge of the past while still keeping their focus on revolutionary, new ideas? Mentorship, in particular, is one noteworthy suggestion. Mentors can provide students, especially students new to research, with increased confidence in their abilities and invaluable knowledge regarding research methods and prior discoveries.
Getting established with a mentor can be intimidating, but there are lots of programs out there aiming to help first-time researchers, as well as others, to get involved in research and connect with mentors in their field of interest. Maya Holay, a sophomore chemical and biomedical engineering double major at Carnegie Mellon University experienced this for herself this past summer when she was chosen to participate in a program entitled the Summer Research Institute (SRI). “I got an email from Carnegie Institute of Technology informing me that I could apply for this biological, over the summer research and that if I was accepted, I would get paid and be provided housing,” said Maya.
The SRI program began at Carnegie Mellon University in 2002, and is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). “The umbrella program is HHMI, which funds everything. The SRI program they support is focused on teaching undergraduates how to do research,” Maya explained. The program is only open to rising sophomores and includes students from both Carnegie Mellon’s main Pittsburgh campus as well as their Qatar campus.
Specifically, SRI is a ten-week program where students are trained in wet laboratory techniques as well as DNA analysis and experimental design software in order to conduct research regarding recombinant DNA techniques and biochemical methods. Maya’s research involved the connection between gut bacteria and the brain. “We changed the bacteria in the gut of fruit flies and monitored how it affected various aspects of their behavior such as learning, memory, and perception,” Maya explained.
Along with the ability to be involved in fascinating research as a rising sophomore, the SRI program also gave Maya the opportunity to connect with various mentors who supplemented the program, namely Dr. Brook McCartney, an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon’s biological sciences department. “I had a postgraduate student in my lab who managed most of the training we went through, and she worked under Dr. McCartney who was the principle investigator. They were both influential mentors along with various other graduate students,” Maya said.
The SRI program is one of many research programs that offer a way for students to get connected with valuable mentors who can offer beneficial advice for students who are beginning or continuing their careers in research. This mentorship supplements research experience and paves the way for student success.