For my winter-term project my freshman year, I decided to do “research,” not really knowing what that meant at the time. In high school, research is something one does entirely with books, or more likely the Internet, a search for information that someone else has acquired. At Oberlin, however, the information you find is your own and the conclusions you draw are based on your own data. Additionally, as I was to learn over the course of January, most of the time the questions you ask lead to more questions.
As a first-year, I knew very little about molecular biology when I first approached Professor Taylor Allen about working in his lab, but he was eager to teach me and confident in my ability to learn quickly. Looking back on it, I didn’t understand as much as I thought I did while I was running various DNA amplifying machines during winter term, but it was very valuable to start my Cell and Molecular Biology class the following year already knowing several of the lab techniques.
What I took away most from the experience came from observing the senior honors students in the lab, some of whom had been working with Professor Allen for years. I got to see them right in the thick of their honors projects, working towards some sort of finding or discovery that they would present at the end of their final semester at Oberlin. What I saw were a bunch of seniors (who I, as a freshman, thought were really cool), who truly wanted to know more about what they were studying, and, most importantly, who calmly accepted the frequent frustrations of trial and error.
Like me, most of these students were working with C. Elegans (otherwise known as nematodes) and the work was often tedious and involved many hours of looking under microscopes to “pick worms.” But even with the daily work, the lab environment was relaxed and welcoming, and the students supported one another in their research with constant praise and encouragement when things went well. The group of honors students met once a week to update each other on what they had done and what they were planning on doing for the next week, and I got to witness one of these meetings. They listened to their fellow students with interest and brought insight to each other’s projects without forgetting to congratulate each other when small breakthroughs had been made.
Coming from my high school experience with a definition of “research,” I figured that science on an undergraduate level would never be advanced enough to include the attainment of novel information, that students would never care enough to be so invested in their projects as these seniors were. Oberlin’s small size and commitment to the sciences allows for such opportunities to be presented, even to freshmen who are just tagging along for the ride. I know of no other school where a professor will welcome a first-year student without a molecular biology background into their lab as willingly as Professor Allen welcomed me. (Even while I battled mono for the duration of the month, he was particularly forgiving when my exhaustion led me to make mistakes.) It is that genuine desire to learn, through both experimentation and observation, that drew me to Oberlin as a prospective student, and the acceptance of the biology department that led me to choose biology as my major.