Pushing past challenges in undergraduate research

When I first applied to Johns Hopkins University, I was convinced I did not want to study engineering. I was hesitant to participate in any kind of research and wasn’t all that confident in my technical skills. I thought research would be boring and perhaps unnecessarily difficult. Still, I enjoyed biology and chemistry in high school, so I figured I would major in either one of those two subjects. After taking an engineering sampler seminar course, I found myself attracted to chemical and biomolecular engineering (ChemBE). I still had my reservations about majoring in it, but I’m not one to shy away from a challenge. So, I told myself: if I absolutely hate it, I’ll switch to something different, and if I like it, great, I’ll stick with it. And it turned out that I loved it.

Fatima Umanzor works in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz (photo by Mary Spiro)

Fatima Umanzor works in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz (photo by Mary Spiro)

After a semester of taking introductory chemistry and physics classes, I sat down with my faculty advisor, Dr. Denis Wirtz, and he asked me if I had thought about research. I told him that I had and that I really wanted to work in his lab, even if it meant waiting for a spot to open up. Smiling, he told me it would be no problem. I got an email in the late summer from my soon-to-be mentor, Hasini Jayatilaka, asking whether I would be interested in interviewing to work for her. Excited, I replied that I would be and we met soon after. Since then, my perception of research has changed for the better.

These days, I can be found in the lab most of the time, with the exception of weeks filled with midterms. When I’m not in class, I may be in the cell culture room making 3D type I collagen I matrices or conducting immunofluorescence staining, or in the bacterial room performing an RNA extraction for PCR, or in the office space, analyzing data. With each experiment that we run, I learn something new. Most of what I know about the way cancer works comes from the research that I’ve conducted related to cancer cell metastasis in Dr. Wirtz’s lab, which is a part of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT). I continue to learn more from these investigations than I do in the classroom. I’ve gained so many new skills that I know will be invaluable one day should I decide to pursue my own PhD or work in an industrial setting.

But I’ve gained so much more than just research experience: I’ve become more confident in my ability to learn and grow as a student and researcher, my mentor and peers in the lab have become sources of advice and wisdom, as well as some of my closest friends, and I’ve been exposed to so many cool opportunities I didn’t know I had before. For example, this summer I was able to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Pittsburgh, and I’m certain that I have my lab experience (and Dr. Wirtz) to thank for making that experience possible.

While there are days that I feel like I’m not cut out for ChemBE, I can always come back to my research team and feel assured that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Between team outings and hearing stories of past experiences, I know that I am not alone when times get hard. And while at times I struggle to deal with discouraging exam grades or frustratingly difficult problem sets, I know that my experiences more than make up for flaws in other aspects and that the time spent on my work in the lab is not in vain. I am lucky enough to work for someone who sees a lot of potential in me, even when I don’t see it in myself, and pushes me to pursue various opportunities and believes in me. That belief and support is a priceless part of what I get from working in the INBT.

Overall, I would say research is one of the most rewarding aspects of my undergraduate career. I’ve made friends, gained an assortment of skills and a lot of new knowledge, and have learned more about myself and potential post-grad opportunities. I’m grateful I can come into a space every day with a purpose and set goals for myself, surrounded by people who are passionate about their work, and be motivated to work hard and discover something new each day.

Fatima Umanzor is a junior studying chemical and biomolecular engineering with a concentration in molecular and cellular bioengineering and an interest in cancer metastasis and tumorigenesis.

All press inquiries about INBT should be directed to Mary Spiro, INBT’s science writer and media relations director at mspiroATjhu.edu.



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