How do I prepare myself for research internships (or how do I do well in my research lab)?

When I entered college, I was obsessed with science and getting involved in research, but I didn’t know how to join a lab, let alone what exactly it was I wanted to research. I was particularly fascinated by understanding biology through math, so I joined a bioinformatics lab.

When I joined, I was overwhelmed. I had never written a programmed anything before in my life. But I put hours and hours of effort into learning the programming skills and research techniques throughout the semester, and, before the end of my freshman year, I was accepted to a bioinformatics REU at Cornell University. Having said that, it didn’t come easy, but I’d like to share some thoughts on excelling in your research so you can find new opportunities.

Once you’ve found your research area of interest, identify what it takes to get better and ambitiously develop those skills that will make you look attractive to internship admissions officers. Most students spend 10-15 hours a week doing research. Make sure that you are conscious of what you are learning from your research and you can reflect on that later. This will allow you to write amazing essays later when it comes time to apply for the internships. Find whatever skills to make you better. Practice any relevant lab technique you can get your hands on. You don’t need some glorious goal of publishing a paper or winning a Nobel Prize when you first start out. Your first steps are to gain the fundamental skills necessary to gain more advanced research skills.

But you can’t just have the skills and go anywhere with just that. To be truly successful, you need to develop a purpose. This is important, not only to keep you happy and motivated while you work, but also to give you something to discuss for your application and essays and interviews in the future. Finding a purpose in your research work can help you decide if it’s really right for you. But “finding a purpose” sounds so abstract and generic that it’s hard to know what it really means. When confronted with the harsh, unforgiving reality of research, your idealistic goals might get shot down. One thing that I’ve found to be effective is to make the search for meaning something…meaningful.

I’ve found that self-reflection on your work between periods of intense focus has helped me actualize my own thoughts. When I say “self-reflection,” it could mean writing down your thoughts and information into a journal or blog as you work. That way, you can reflect on your experiences until you cultivate a purpose behind what you do. If you can, keep a notebook wherever you go (separate from your lab notebook) and write down any new ideas, questions, hypotheses you might want to answer in the future. I work in a bioinformatics lab, meaning, I do absolutely no work that doesn’t involve a computer (My lab members don’t even use lab notebooks). However, I still keep a physical lab notebook for penning down my ideas. When I write down whatever comes to my mind, I can look back on it later. This has not only helped me stay focused during the day, but also helped me put the work that I do on a daily basis into a broader context. I read back on it my thoughts for inspiration and reflection for improvement. For example, you might say you want to study how species evolve over time, but, in your lab, you’ve only run a few different cell genomics assays. If you can write down some other ideas you have, you can maybe develop some new ideas and questions over time that help you create something yourself. Give it time. Give it thought. And, perhaps someday, the light bulb will spark.

Remember that careful and meticulous practice is always better than losing yourself in the “flow” of your daily routine. Remember that what you get out of your work isn’t necessarily just how many hours you spend working in your lab, but, rather, a combination of the number of hours and the intensity of your focus in those hours.