From identifying research areas of interest to navigating lab cultures, WISCIENCE’s undergraduate research programs are touchpoints for students during their time at UW–Madison. When undergraduate Jaitri Joshi graduates this spring, the biochemistry and life sciences communication double major will have spearheaded several WISCIENCE initiatives and been a WISCIENCE Undergraduate Research Peer Leader for over three years. Jaitri sat down with Department of Biochemistry communications specialist Catherine Steffel to share her story.
Department of Biochemistry: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us about WISCIENCE!
Jaitri: Thank you!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m technically a Canadian international student. I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A few years later, my family moved to Sydney, Australia, so I spent some of my childhood in Australia before moving to a suburb of Minneapolis.
Who or what got you excited about science?
Science, I feel like, has always been a big part of my life. My mom was studying microbiology when I was being raised in Canada. She’d be studying microbiology at night after coming home from work, and my bedtime stories kind of turned into ways for her to study — I had, like, names of bacteria that were part of my bedtime stories. And that was kind of a beautiful moment for me to be inspired by science and just kind of learn in an imaginative way.
When did you get involved in scientific research?
I had a family member who was affected by cancer, and I read a lot of scientific papers to see what kinds of treatments were out there. I was also in high school at the time. A lot of the government-funded high school research programs weren’t really accessible for me as an international student, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I emailed a lot of different professors to see how I could be involved in scientific research as an international student, and I conducted informational interviews with them.
Cold contacting professors, reading scientific papers…that’s a lot of things students don’t do until undergrad, but you were doing these things in high school!
I mostly got into it on my own. I had Googled a few things, but I wasn’t getting clear answers. I decided to read scientific papers even if I wasn’t capable of understanding every single thing that was represented. I think the first paper I sat down to read, I was annotating like every other word, and those manuscripts are what I ended up bringing to my informational interviews. But through these conversations with professors, learning more, and breaking things down into little pieces, I began to understand the questions they were asking. They’re really telling a story with their manuscripts. These experiences and questions of, how do we communicate science in a way that’s more accessible, are also what led me to being a life sciences communication double major.
Did these informational interviews help you to find a lab to work in?
Yes! I ended up working at Children’s Minnesota Hospital with one of the physicians I had talked to for two years on a clinical research study, and I published a first author publication after I graduated high school. At that point, I knew I wanted to go to undergrad at a place with a really big research presence. UW–Madison has that, especially in the area of biochemistry. They make such incredible discoveries!
Did you do any research your freshman year of undergrad at UW?
I started off doing research freshman year with the Arendt Lab at the School of Veterinary Medicine, and I’ve been doing research there for the last four years. Later on, I also explored translational research labs. That’s because I wanted to understand what was being done to build research from the ground up and to explore how basic research actually gets into the clinic.
Why did you become an Undergraduate Research Peer Leader?
I was taking an Exploring Biology course that was offered through WISCIENCE my freshman year. Leaders for that class told us about study habits and opportunities around campus, and they also talked about the research peer leaders. I applied to be a research peer leader the next semester, since I had already been involved in research and had some experience navigating research on campus, and I’ve been a peer leader ever since!
What have you done as a peer leader?
I’ve led Find a Research Lab workshops, I hold one-on-one drop-in hours, I’m a TA for the Exploring Research courses, and I give advice when I’m on panels. During the pandemic, I created a video series on finding a research mentor because I knew the fundamental workshops were harder to access. I also worked with the Biological Interactions Summer Program. Finally, I’ve been working on a research project that looks into how self-efficacy plays a part in undergraduate research mentorship.
What advice do you give to undergraduates who are interested in research but unsure of what they want to do?
What I’ve learned from my time on this campus is that researchers love talking about their research. Like, you can just go into a professor’s office and talk to them about their work. You honestly don’t even need that many questions. Those are really meaningful opportunities that we have as students on this campus. People are passionate and ready to share information with us!
From my experience, I say keep an open mind, even if you don’t know what you’re really looking for. Check out some of the resources UW offers for purposes that might not be directly geared towards finding a lab as an undergraduate, like the Experts Database for news media. Gathering inspiration from those places — what sounds cool, what jumps out at you — and just kind of run with it.
Do more than just Googling someone’s department and webpage because there are so many considerations within research that you don’t really understand until you start working in a lab. Come up with questions to assess your own interest in a topic. Do that informational interview, even if you’re not sure how it will pan out, and gauge how you feel when talking with different professors and get a sense of their different mentoring styles. I think that having those good lab support surroundings are what make research projects and your time in a lab meaningful.
But also take your time in exploring. You don’t have to jump right into research as a student. If you’re starting earlier, with less experience, many researchers will love training you, but if you’re starting later with less experience, you might have more course knowledge or more of an idea of what you want to work on, and that’s also beneficial.
How can UW–Madison improve their support of undergraduates interested in research?
At UW–Madison, there’s just hundreds and hundreds of labs that explore very cool things. I remember just trying to find opportunities and being overwhelmed with all of the options. UW has some great resources like the Discovery Portal, which is basically a database of departments and professors and their research areas, but I think what we could do to improve is have researchers talk about their work in places undergraduates frequent. It’s impactful and makes research more accessible when researchers communicate directly to undergrads in a way that isn’t purely scientific but also not too general. There are campus orgs that are really pushing for this, such as WSUM 91.7 FM Madison Student Radio, Women in Scientific Education and Research, and the Journal of Undergraduate Science and Technology, but I think there needs to be a better way to facilitate these types of conversations between undergrads and researchers.
What are your plans after graduating?
It’s been hard as I’ve been applying to medical schools this year. I’m not sure how that’ll go this fall. I might do a Special Master’s Program and continue on with a little more research, but my ultimate goal is to go into clinical trials and cancer research as a physician.
Anything else you’d like to share with the campus community?
Any kind of research experience can really make a difference in a student’s education. Just being involved in research, even if that’s not the career that you want to go down, can really help you understand your likes and dislikes. Because UW has such incredible opportunities for research, I say go for it and try it out, at least for a semester. I think people of all backgrounds can find benefit from it.
Interview conducted by Catherine Steffel, Ph.D. Photos by Robin Davies. The Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement helps undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty and staff grow their knowledge, skills, and confidence.