Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Finding my place in the vast world of research

By CLAIRE CHUNG | March 11, 2024

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FLAVIO SERAFINI / CC BY-NC 2.0

Chung reflects on the iterative but reflective nature of research through which she learns important skills and obtains cherished moments in her research lab. 

In many ways, joining the Searson Lab has been challenging for me. I began doing research at Hopkins wanting to bring my world to the lab but found the lab a world of its own.

When I was younger, I had always imagined a research lab as the kind of fancy modern room that we see in sci-fi movies — full of scientists in pristine white coats operating sleek machines and furiously pipetting into empty beakers (without any aseptic technique). Thus, my perception of a research lab was completely renewed when, as a freshman last winter, I joined Dr. Peter Searson’s lab at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology. The lab focuses on reverse engineering the blood-brain barrier to elucidate mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases, stroke, aging and infectious diseases. 

Contrary to my imagination, the Searson Lab looks ordinary but professional — it’s filled with polydimethylsiloxane-covered lab benches and shelves stacked with numerous equipment, all accompanied by the constant hum of the incubator in the background. Yet, as I immersed myself in the daily rhythms of experimentation, I began to see a different kind of beauty unfolding before me: It wasn't the glamor of futuristic technology or the flashy lab operations I had imagined but rather the quiet, steady and meticulous progress of scientific inquiry. I am very grateful that my lab provides a safe space for me to learn from my mistakes and consistently make progress that can pave the way for exciting ideas and discoveries. 

In the lab, there were many moments when I felt like an ant crawling on a Möbius strip, going through twists and turns just to find myself returning to the original spot. However, it was the iterative nature of research and incremental refinement of progress that helped me grow into a proactive and adaptable researcher who strives to think critically and strategically in the face of setbacks. Eventually, I found ways to thrive here: how to reach out for guidance without feeling scared, how to best present my data at lab meetings and how to find the balance between being productive and well-rested.

My favorite part about working in the lab is that I learn something new each day. Every experiment I undertook has taught me skills and strategies that are useful for future experiments. Most importantly, I found ways to challenge myself and try out new experiments and thought processes with the courage of my mentors. 

I am currently working on enhancing the functionality and viability of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)-derived 3D in vitro models and validating 3D-printed platforms for these models. This topic excites me because as we continue to innovate and validate more high-fidelity tissue models using iPSCs, we will be able to obtain pathology data and determine the efficacy of treatment strategies in ways that cannot be achieved by animal models or human samples. 

During my time in the lab also emerged the blessings of many cherished memories shared with my lab community. Despite being far away from my home in Taiwan, I got to properly celebrate Lunar New Year with a table full of amazing dishes (and, of course, handmade dumplings) at a Lab Dumpling Party. At Halloween, a few of us were brave enough to venture into haunted houses and try out the scariest rides at Six Flags. I also enjoyed the small moments that made each day in the lab different and exciting, from lunch at R House to snack announcements on Slack to small talk in the office.

Last year, I remember asking my mentor a question that had been bothering me: “I feel like the work I do in research is not going to make any difference in the world. Does it even matter?” 

She responded that scientific research is a cascade of incremental breakthroughs that advances the frontiers of our knowledge, like a colony of ants trying to push a heavy rock just a little further. Oftentimes, we only pay attention to the groundbreaking discoveries and fail to acknowledge the collective work by scientists and engineers around the globe and across time that enabled a huge leap. 

I wrote that down in my diary that evening, and it made more sense day by day. As an undergraduate researcher, I seek to contribute to this mission by learning from and elevating others who share this goal. Working in a dynamic and collaborative environment through the Searson Lab has been a significant step in my research journey, and I am committed to making meaningful contributions that can continue pushing the boundaries of engineering and medicine. 

Research on the Record spotlights undergraduate students involved in STEM research at Hopkins. The goal of the column is to share reflections on the highs and lows that Hopkins students experience in their contributions to undergraduate research. If you are an undergraduate researcher interested in being profiled, reach out to science@jhunewsletter.com.


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