Biomedical Engineering Pre-Grad Intern Shan Modi

Shan ModiBecoming a Researcher: IE Pre-Graduate School Internship

Lao Tzu once said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." In my journey to graduate from college and enter an M.D./PhD program, I believe that the first step I took was obtaining a research assistant position at the Schmidt Biomimetic & Neural Engineering Lab in the Biomedical Engineering department of the University of Texas at Austin. Ever since joining the lab in Fall 2010, I have been working in creating 3-D Hyaluronic Acid Soft Tissue Scaffolds for neural applications with my graduate student, Richelle Thomas. For this semester, we chose to focus on inserting an electroconductive polymer, pyrrole, into these specified scaffolds to allow them to conduct impulses and be more applicable for neural wound healing (as normal neurons conduct impulses all the time!). However, what made this semester different than my previous ones in research was my participation in the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship. Through this internship, I was able to take a more active role in research, becoming more of an independent researcher, rather than depending on my graduate student for guidance. I became more attuned to what failures meant realm of research, and learned what steps to take to overcome these failures. Most importantly though, I was able to communicate effectively with my mentor about her experiences in graduate school, and get an indication of how graduate school would be like for me in the future.

One of the key aspects of this internship was learning how to become an independent researcher. Although this sounds conceptually easy, this was actually the hardest part of my research/internship this semester, as I had to spend an immeasurable hours conducting my own research, formulating my own experiments, and analyzing my own data. To say I was completely alone in my research endeavors would be wrong though-whenever I was stuck on a problem in finding adequate sources for a particular topic or whenever I didn't know how to use a piece of laboratory equipment, my mentor gladly guided me in the right direction. Richelle always insisted in me doing as much as I could on my own though, as she wanted me to have the true graduate school experience-pressure to formulate your own ideas with minimal outside assistance.

The first step in conducting independent research/ formulating my own independent project was outlining what I wanted to accomplish and to find sources that I could use as background information to help me achieve my goals. With that being said, the outline for my semester was as follows: 1. Creating a hydrogel solution that contains pyrrole and can be cross-linked with oxygen, 2. Conjugating the solutions to a suitable electrode (gold), 3. Performing electrochemical testing on the hydrogels to see if they conduct electricity. To gather enough information to formulate my own experiments, I found various research papers using library sources and online databases pertinent to each part of my outline. For example, for the first topic of the outline, I found papers relating to pyrrole incorporation whereas for the third topic, I looked up papers related to electrochemical testing. This process was essential in establishing myself as a budding researcher as it taught me how to find credible sources and search for pertinent information within sources.

The next step in establishing myself as an independent researcher was formulating my own experiments for my project. This process was relatively easy compared to previous step, as all I did was mimic prior reference experiments using my own materials, varying the concentrations of hyaluronic acid and cross-linker (a chemical agent that induces the formation of covalent bonds within a substance-for my experiment, I used a thiol-hydrazide cross-linker). In regards to testing the electrochemical properties of hydrogels, I again used previous literature to assist me in the experimental setup, and then used intuition to see which electrochemical tests were most applicable for the gels I had created. Applicability of the tests was based on if the data received by the tests clearly indicated a trend of electrical conductance within the hydrogels. With that being said, the two electrochemical analysis tests that I mainly focused on in my research by Cyclic Voltammetry and Galvanostatic Electropolymerization; tests that measure the ability to conduct voltage and the ability to pass current respectively.

The last step in solidifying myself as an independent researcher was being able to analyze data and form conclusions. This part of the research process was more tedious than difficult, as I had to spend countless hours reading literature to understand my results, while also recording each data point I took during analysis on an Excel spreadsheet and my lab notebook to allow for graphing of results and record keeping respectively. This process taught me how patience is a key trait needed for a graduate student, as noteworthy results can only come from putting in the time to get those results in the first place. I also learned that data analysis is just as important as data collection, as a researcher's data can be completely right with one error in analysis skewing the results. Therefore, as a result of conducting my own independent research, I was not only able to get a glimpse of the lifestyle of a graduate student, but also establish myself as a better researcher, capable of undertaking the future load of graduate school.

Another valuable lesson I learned in this IE internship was figuring out how to deal with failure and success as a researcher. In the beginning stages of my project, a problem that I encountered was finding the right cross-linker for my hydrogels. This was a major factor in the success of my project, as the cross-linker was the chemical that gave the gels their shape-without it, the gels would be puddles of liquid. The first cross-linker I tried was a thiol-based solution (a compound with sulfur groups) that would induce my hydrogel solution to form covalent bonds instantaneously upon addition. Although this allowed for rigidity of the solution, it did not allow me enough time to inject the solutions into the desired molds for shaping the gels, and consequently could not be deposited on gold electrodes for electrochemical testing. Varying the concentration of cross-linker did not produce much success, so I was forced to find new alternatives for cross-linking agents. Although it was hard for at first to completely scrap an idea, I realized that it was a necessity for my project to have a chance of success, regardless of the time I spent on it. Fortunately for me, the next cross-linker I tried, a hydrazide based cross-linker, allowed me the time to inject my gels into their specified molds on the gold, while also making the gels rigid after 24 hours rather than 24 seconds. This success could not have been achieved without the repetitive failures I encountered with my previous cross-linking agent. Instead of letting those failures discourage me, I used them as motivational tools to find the right substance to get the job done, as I believed an idea is always possible with the correct resources in hand. With that being said, I think encountering failures within my research allowed me to learn how to use them for my own benefit, and learn how important it is for a graduate student to have the right mindset when performing his or her own experiments.

The last aspect that I took away from this internship was learning what the "true graduate school experience" was by communicating effectively with mentor in regards to her current experiences. For instance, one of the most important lessons that Richelle taught me during this semester was the importance of time management to a graduate student, as even though they are allowed a wide degree of flexibility for work scheduling, they have to plan out weeks and months in advance in order to make real progress in their projects. She also taught me that graduate school should not be perceived as a punishment of "extra-studying" but more an opportunity to show your individuality, as you ultimately graduate as a PhD by creating your own ideas. You do not need tests and essays to measure your progress as graduate student, as you are the one critiquing your progress every week. Furthermore, Richelle even went as far as to help me find internships for this following summer, and also help me create a plan outlining when I should take my entrance exams (GRE/MCAT) and when I should complete particular graduate school requirements for various schools. I could not have asked for more from Richelle this semester, as all the lessons she taught me were lessons that I will be carrying on for the rest of my undergraduate career and hopefully my graduate career. With that being said, I believe that the most important, and most rewarding portion of this internship, was being able to communicate to my mentor about her graduate school experience in order to get a better picture of what I can expect my experience to be.

Although graduate school is far in the future, the IE Pre-Grad Internship allowed me to learn the key aspects of being a graduate student, namely learning how to be an independent researcher, learning how to deal with failure, and learning how to perceive graduate school as a whole. I would not trade the experience I had this past semester for anything, as my mentor truly helped me grow into a more responsible individual, and showed me how to enjoy research rather than view it as a burden. With that being said, I plan to continue researching in the Schmidt Biomimetic & Neural Engineering Lab for the rest of my undergraduate career, in hopes of building myself into not only a better researcher, but also a better candidate for graduate school.