Understanding How Real-Life Research Works: Joel’s UROP Journey at ARMI

25 Jun,2024

Understanding How Real-Life Research Works: Joel’s UROP Journey at ARMI

Embarking on a journey through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) is a transformative experience for many students, providing a unique blend of academic enrichment and practical experience. For Joel Whitcher, a passionate biomedical science student, UROP offered the perfect opportunity to dive into research that would both complement his studies and ignite his curiosity. His seven-month placement at ARMI has been a testament to the profound impact such experiences can have on burgeoning scientists.

Why Joel Chose UROP

Reflecting on his decision to apply for UROP, Joel shares, “UROP was particularly appealing because, firstly, I wanted to gain real-life industry experience working on a research project I was passionate about, and one that would complement my biomedical science studies well. I wanted to undertake a research project that went beyond the 12 weeks of the university semester, so I could fully integrate into my lab and watch the progression of my project.”

Moreover, the funded nature of the placement played a significant role. “As a funded placement, UROP has meant I’ve been able to reduce my hours at my part-time job and dedicate as much time as I can to my project,” Joel explains. The financial support and extended timeframe not only allowed Joel to immerse himself fully in his research but also enabled him to form meaningful connections with his supervisors and peers across various labs at ARMI.

The Research Project

Under the guidance of Dr Alberto Roselló-Díez and Dr Chee Ho H’ng, Joel worked on an intriguing project centred on systemic signalling pathways involved in communicating injuries from one part of the body to distant tissues and organs. Joel describes, “Specifically, my host lab has developed a mouse model in which we can induce highly specific and selective cellular injury, causing cell death in the tibial growth plate of developing mice. This injury remarkably only occurs on one side of the body, and only in the growth plate.” Observing changes in cell signalling on the uninjured side suggested a possible systemic response, a puzzle that Joel was eager to piece together.

Enrichment Through UROP

Participating in UROP has profoundly enriched Joel’s educational journey. He notes a significant difference between his lab experience and undergraduate studies: “I think the biggest difference compared to my undergraduate degree has been the parallel workflow of the lab. For example, I might work on 2-3 experiments at the same time, compared to my undergrad labs in which we almost always only focus on one experiment at a time.” This multitasking skill, honed under the watchful eyes of experienced researchers, deepened Joel’s appreciation for the intricacies of scientific research.

Joel’s hands-on experience with advanced techniques like conditional gene knockout, click chemistry, immunohistochemistry, and in-situ hybridization has solidified his conceptual understanding and practical skills. “Working in my lab has been absolutely invaluable to my education, and has contributed a much deeper understanding of how real-life research works,” he says.

Highlights and Challenges

The journey was not without its moments of revelation and challenges. Joel fondly recalls moments of intellectual excitement: “The more I became invested in my project, the more I couldn’t help but think about my experiments and new ideas even after the work day was over.” One particularly thrilling moment was hypothesizing that the neurotransmitter NPY could be involved in systemic signaling, a theory he developed by integrating information from various research papers.

However, the path of discovery also involved learning to embrace mistakes. Joel reflects, “Making mistakes proved to be the times I learnt the most about my research and what it is like to be a researcher. I think understanding how valuable mistakes can be to my learning experience was super important to getting the most out of my placement.”

Future Directions

Inspired, Joel is keen to pursue a career in biomedical research. “I have come to absolutely love the puzzle-piecing that goes into putting experimental results together,” he shares with enthusiasm. The experience has not only contributed to his current project but also fuelled his passion for uncovering the mysteries of systemic signalling pathways and beyond.

Joel’s time as a UROP student at ARMI stands as a shining example of how this program can profoundly impact a student’s academic and professional trajectory. Through developing practical skills, collaborative learning, and an unwavering curiosity, Joel already has an invaluable headstart in his career in academia and biomedical research.

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