Coming into Cornell as a freshman last year, one thing that I was concerned about was whether or not I would be able to participate in research as an undergraduate. I soon learned that getting a research position is not a difficult process at all. I met Biophysics Professor Carl Franck during orientation week at a reception. He, like most Cornell professors, is incredibly friendly and approachable. He explained his research projects to me, but we eventually ended up discussing various magic tricks. He is actually extremely good at card tricks. In addition to showing me magic tricks he also invited me to come visit his lab the next day so that he could teach me some of them! Not only did I learn some fun card tricks, but he also showed me around the lab, and explained more of his work.
During the Spring semester, I saw Professor Franck again at the National Conference for Women in Physics, which was hosted at Cornell in January. There, I asked him about working in his lab, and he offered me a research position for the following year. So far, I have greatly enjoyed my research. We are studying the way in which the cells of the slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum communicate with each other. We have found that the cells grow at different rates at various stages in the growth cycle, and that these differing growth rates may be due to chemical signals that the cells disperse via the medium. We have also observed the formation of groups of cells called “clusters” that stick together. We are developing a procedure for counting cells using a laser light scattering apparatus. Specifically, my project is to investigate the degree to which the Dicty cells are multinuclear—I have been taking phase contrast images of cultures of cells, and watching them grow and divide, in order to see how many of them grow into large, multinucleate cells before dividing into up to six or seven cells. In looking at this data, however, I discovered several examples of a pair of cells actually merging to form a larger, multinucleate cell. This result surprised everyone in the lab group, because we were expecting to see the cells grow and divide according to cytokinesis. Now that we are aware of this different behavior, we are investigating what might be its cause. Are the cells somehow signaling each other to merge? What is the purpose of this recombination? These are exciting new questions that I am working to answer this semester and next!
My research experience has been enjoyable also because my lab group is so friendly. It is a relatively small group—Professor Franck is the principle investigator, there is a graduate student in biophysics, and two other undergraduates. We have weekly group meetings in which we each have a chance to discuss our own findings and progress during the past week. We joke around with each other, and there is certainly a light atmosphere—we do serious work, but that doesn’t mean we have to be serious all the time! We also take the time to support each other in our other extracurricular events, such as cross country meets and musical performances. While I am certainly learning a great deal of biophysics due to this experience, I also feel that I am forming friendships. In addition to our group meetings, we also have weekly “journal club” meetings, in which we discuss papers that other labs have published, in order to gain a better understanding of other work being done that may help in our own research. Other than basic high school curriculum, I have no experience with chemistry or biology, so these journal club meetings have provided me with opportunities to learn more about the biochemistry that is important in biophysics. They have also been extremely interesting, and we have come up with some exciting research ideas as a result of the process.
While research is generally associated with the sciences, there are plenty of research opportunities for humanities students as well. Last year, I attended an information session on undergraduate research positions, and there were a number of professors from a variety of disciplines who spoke about the research being done by undergraduates in their fields. From my experience at Cornell thus far, I think that anyone who wants to participate in research will be able to find a position. Talking to your professors at office hours or even via email is really all it takes to get involved. You will find that there is nothing professors enjoy talking about more than their research!