An undergraduate perspective into summer research programs
I still remember when I was in my senior year of high school, and on an ordinary day, the school’s principal told me that I was elected as a candidate for a scholarship to participate in a STEM summer research program at UC San Diego. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I am glad I took the challenge because now I have a story to tell.
I was born and raised in Ensenada. A small town that it is about 2 hours south of the International San Ysidro Border and it is part of the mega-region and industrial cluster CaliBaja. It is common for most of the Mexican private institutions, research facilities, and universities to have affiliations and joint programs with universities from California such as SDSU and UC San Diego. That’s how my school’s principal invited me to participate in BioChemCoRe, a biochemistry, biophysics, and computational biology summer research program at UC San Diego.
And so the journey began. My first week at BioChemCoRe was really tough. Although I had previous chemistry and biology courses at my high school, I did not have any research experience before. Also, I felt like I was an outsider since everyone was from the United States and it seemed like the other students were processing all the information really well and making some progress while I was just decades behind. I was used to be on the honor roll always back in Mexico, and there it felt like I was the not-so-smart kid in the class.
I was out of my comfort zone I didn’t know anyone, I was in a foreign country, and I was feeling so vulnerable. At that point, I had to do something to catch up because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do anything with enough will, so that’s what I did. I started to take notes on words and terminology that I did not understand from the lectures and on the first weekend, I did my own research on what I wrote in my notebook.
"I was out of my comfort zone....I wanted to prove to myself that I could do anything..."
The list was huge! But after that weekend of hard study, watching tutorials on YouTube and making flash cards (very old school but effective!), I was finally starting to enjoy the research experience. I was really getting into the core of my project and I was able to understand it. At that point I could solve the tasks more efficiently and even try new things.
Also, I wouldn't have been able to overcome the adversities, language barriers, and knowledge barriers without the support of my mentor. It is true that having a good mentor can be the difference between being motivated to keep on going with passion or just finish what you started without any additional commitments.
The following weeks were just perfect. I was making relevant progress in my research and I was truly enjoying the experience. Mexico has excellent research facilities like Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE), and also some universities that have great research programs; however, most college students do not have the opportunity to delve into the STEM research because there is not enough promotion and people do not know what it is like. As an example, before participating in BioChemCoRe I never considered pursuing a Ph.D. or doing research, though I have always loved science. I was just like the majority of my classmates who just wanted to work, but after this experience my world-view changed and along with it, my priorities.
Thankfully, I had the opportunity to return on 2016 and 2017 to BioChemCore and participated in two more research projects. Each of them more challenging than the previous one. But I would like to point out that as a Mexican girl, being able to have those international research experiences was like a precious gift. I have been lucky and this experience has changed my life. Now, I have a motivation. I want to go to graduate school and apply for the bioengineering Ph.D. program so I can be a professor and with my research and classes, I could help young people (like me right now) to find their motivation in life and be better professionals.
I look forward to being a professor and giving advice to undergraduate students, because I believe that experiencing research while being a college student is the best thing you could do if you have an interest in going to graduate school or if you haven’t decided yet. It is a good idea to give it a try because you will learn a few important lessons:
You can accomplish everything that you want to as long you have the will.
Time is always a valuable resource that needs to be handled carefully and efficiently.
There are many fascinating and undiscovered research topics and areas
There are also many opportunities to have great findings
Science is amazing!