Finding the Right Research Experience

by Jeet Patel, OUR Ambassador

Getting started in research can be a daunting and frustrating process. When you first get started there are a lot of variables – field of study, type of work, environment – which you may not even consider just trying to get your foot in the door. But what do you do if, once you get your first research opportunity, you are unhappy with your position? Some might feel stuck because they don’t want to go through the process of finding a new opportunity while others might shy away from research entirely. While it is nice to find a great research job and stick with it, you shouldn’t be afraid of experimenting a bit to find a good fit.

My first research experience was during high school. I was a summer intern at Duke (I know what you might be thinking, but keep in mind that Duke is a great research university despite some of its faults and there are many opportunities for UNC students to work there) in a lab studying protein biochemistry. I worked on a computer sifting through data and running computer simulations. Most of the work I got to do was very defined and didn’t involve any problem solving, which was a major reason I became interested in research in the first place. I didn’t really have the opportunity to create my own experiments and mostly looked through online databases or ran code for the graduate students. I spent a lot of time not really knowing why what I was doing mattered.

While my lab doesn’t necessarily study exactly what I want to, I am very interested in the work being done here and have been able to learn a lot from this experience that will aid me in my next experience.

I did gain a lot of valuable skills from this first research experience. Working in different labs, you get exposure to a variety of ideas and sometimes entirely differently subjects. Working at this lab also helped me realize that I didn’t want to work in a completely dry lab setting. When I started applying to labs in college,  I took a chance and applied to a different kind of biology lab looking for an undergrad to train and work on an independent project. Now, I am working on a project studying the development of oral tissues, which is not something I had ever really thought about prior to joining my lab.

I spend a lot of time doing bench work and collecting data and have been able to take a more active role in the progression of my project. I’m a lot more engaged in the subject matter and I have gained a skill set entirely different from my first research experience. My mentor and PI have helped me integrate into all aspects of performing research – from grant writing to publishing – which has made me feel much more involved and given me a better sense of the goals that I am working towards. While my lab still doesn’t necessarily study exactly what I want to, I am very interested in the work being done here and have been able to learn a lot from this experience that will aid me in my next experience.


I do miss some of the work I did previously. Sometimes it is nice to have full control over a project or to get an immediate result, which is a less common occurrence at the bench. Having worked in both of these different settings, I now feel like I have a much better idea of what I would like to pursue in the future. Working at a crossroads of computational and experimental research seems to be the ideal choice for me, one that would not have been clear had I not worked in these two settings. I also might not have gained the mindset of a developmental biologist if I had not taken the leap out of computational science.

Whether you are a new researcher or just looking for a change of pace, don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. There are a lot of opportunities available and finding the best fit will make research that much more fun and engaging. Keep in mind:

  • What kind of work do you want to do: computer-based, working with people, historical analysis, or bench work, etc.
  • What fields are you interested in (even if you aren’t majoring in it, research can be a good way to get exposure in a different area of study)?
  • What do you want to gain? Some people may want to work independently while others might want to assist in research or perform guided work.

Even if you don’t get the job you want the first time, every research experience can be valuable. Make sure you get as much out of it as possible!