The Oberlin Stories Project

On becoming a good researcher

Cassandra Dean ’17

“I am now able to conduct research at a higher level than most people expect of an undergraduate student, and my ability to network and schedule have improved dramatically.”

A cockatiel is perched on Cassandra's finder

To be an MD or PhD, you need something that makes you stand out. For me, that was joining a research lab at the start of my first year, after a positive gateway research experience at the University of Pennsylvania the summer before beginning college. Since then, having so much research experience has opened so many doors for me.

One day of Oberlin’s orientation is geared specifically towards incoming first-years learning about majors and minors at the department fair, in which academic ambassadors and professors from each academic department are all gathered in the Science Center Atrium. As a first-year, I focused on the science departments, and when I met A.J. Petit, an academic ambassador for neuroscience, I had no idea I was having one of those life-changing encounters that would affect the rest of my life—or at least the rest of my time at Oberlin. As I talked to A.J. about my research passions—namely, autism and genetics—he mentioned he could introduce me to the head of his lab (called a principal investigator, or P.I.), Leslie Kwakye, who just happened to have an autism and genetics project. I met Professor Kwakye that day and have been in her lab for three years and two summers since. I cannot even begin to accurately express how much I have learned from her or how many opportunities I have gained and experienced as a result of these three years.

I recently finished my second month in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one of the few institutions that offers a government-paid MD/PhD dual degree. The program is very competitive (550 applicants for 30 spots), but due to my recommendation letter from Professor Kwakye as well as my three years of research experience at Oberlin, I somehow managed to be accepted into the program. I have had the fortune of being able to work with a researcher and doctor at Cleveland Clinic, and I spent a month doing research in a toxicology lab at Duke University. I found these opportunities because I directly approached people I was lucky enough to meet along the way and asked whether they could take me on as an intern or knew someone else who could. Both were successful internships, and it’s all because I not only had prior research experience, but also because Professor Kwakye and A.J. both taught me the value of talking to people and networking. Without these skills, I doubt I would have found opportunities at Duke or Cleveland Clinic.

Doing research as a freshman was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. After all, it requires learning how to be a college student while simultaneously conducting research with students who are at a much higher level than you. Most research students are juniors or seniors—some are even fifth-years—and they all have been immersed in the work and taken the classes that are meant to build foundational knowledge. Neuroscience labs are especially difficult for incoming freshmen, due to lack of exposure to neuroscience classes or research. Joining a research lab as a freshman requires that you learn to balance your life and your schedule very quickly or you won’t be able to keep up, let alone build and improve your lab skills.

I am usually a quick learner, but even so, building research skills takes a lot of time and practice. Learning how to read, interpret, and critique primary research articles takes a lot of patience, because each research article needs to be considered within the context of the overall scientific literature in the field. Professor Kwakye stresses these skills to those in her lab, even though these are skills usually taught in graduate school. I learned a lot of fundamental lab skills—such as how to keep a lab notebook—from my first research experience prior to Oberlin, but it was really my time in Professor Kwakye’s lab that taught me how to be a good researcher. With these experiences, I am now able to conduct research at a higher level than most people expect of an undergraduate student, and my ability to network and schedule have improved dramatically. I am still a little awed sometimes at where I am now and how Oberlin helped me get here.