M&T students take a variety of different paths during their time at Penn. Many take advantage of the range of research opportunities offered both in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Wharton School.
M&T Margaret Schroeder (’18) shared her research experience through The Meaney Lab below.
Briefly describe your research. What is your central question and how have you gone about answering it?
I did my research through The Meaney Lab, which conducts research in Molecular Neuroengineering and is focused on traumatic brain injury (TBI). Research in the Meaney Lab is both diverse (in terms of techniques used) and specialized (in terms of depth and rigor of a particular project). Our group consists of in silico, in vitro, and in vivo research teams. One of the lab’s ongoing research projects is glial modulation, specifically understanding the role of astrocytes in neuronal signaling on behavioral and cognitive function after injury. I am conducting an independent study on astrocytic modulation of microscale neuronal networks in vitro.
Dr. Meaney is the lead on this project. I’m grateful he takes the time out of his extremely busy schedule to meet with me individually to discuss the implications of my work, brainstorm ideas for new experiments, and discuss my career path and goals. My particular tasks include the design, implementation, and analysis of in vitro experiments related to the central question: To what extent and through what means do neurons communicate with astrocytes, and how does this communication affect the network’s response to injury? This means hours of imaging, adding pharmacological agents, conducting immunoassays, and computational analysis in MATLAB.
How did you hear about this opportunity? What prompted you to apply?
I received an email in Spring 2016 letting us know the Meaney Lab was seeking undergraduate research assistants. Primarily my fascination with the brain and my desire to get hands-on research experience as an undergraduate prompted me to apply. I had also gotten to know Dr. Meaney as my professor and mentor from BE200.
More broadly, I had been going back and forth between pursuing the science or business side of my M&T degree; at a certain point, the two roads might diverge. When I joined Meaney Lab, most of my summer internships had been business-related and I hadn’t fallen in love with any of those fields of work. I kept circling back to my interest in science and my desire to pursue it in a concrete way. I realized we have a unique opportunity at Penn to be involved in world-class research. As an undergraduate, these opportunities are ours for the taking!
How has your experience been so far?
My time in the Meaney Lab has been the most challenging, rewarding, and transformational experience I’ve had at Penn. The problems I face in lab feel more “real” and impactful than the simulated problems in the classroom. As a result, these challenges provide a great learning opportunity. I often find myself itching to get back into the lab after days in the classroom. I also have a sense of ownership over the work I do in the lab. Some of my experiments were the first to test a particular pathway in a particular type of cell in a particular manner, so I feel the data I work with is truly novel, which is exciting.
What were you expecting to gain from this experience?
I was expecting to gain a better understanding of what academic (and specifically biomedical) research is, and if I would like it. I wanted to know if I had the drive, intellectual curiosity, and tenacity to be successful in research, and if scientific research was something I wanted to pursue after college and as a career. I was also hoping to develop a hands-on laboratory skillset in cell culture, immunoassay, molecular biology techniques, and microscopy, to name a few.
My experience in the lab far succeeded any expectations I had going into it. I have learned more in the laboratory than in any classroom environment at Penn: hands-on laboratory skills, basic neuroscience knowledge, experimental design, data analysis and statistics, and scientific report writing. But, perhaps most importantly, I learned how to think about a problem by identifying what I need to know and designing an experiment to get the answer. My lab work has also taught me how to recover and learn from failures and mistakes, of which there have been many.
What value did you gain from this experience?
This experience has helped shape the direction of my journey at Penn and beyond. I now plan to submatriculate into a Master’s here at Penn and maybe even earn my Ph.D. I want to pursue biomedical research as a career, whether in industry or academia.
Would you recommend others doing research? Who and why?
If you have a passion for science, and would definitely recommend trying a research experience. I think most BE students would benefit from trying some kind of life sciences research as it provides us with an opportunity to apply our unique educational background in biology, chemistry, and physics. It’s awesome that we as undergraduates have the opportunity to be a part of the process that might one day lead to a major scientific discovery or innovation that improves the lives of many.
Sometimes there is a temptation to take the “beaten path” of a career in finance, consulting, or Silicon Valley tech. Because of the high visibility of these companies and their heavy recruiting practices at Penn, this path can be easier to take, as there are clear instructions to follow and criteria for success. I encourage those who aren’t sure if they want a career in finance or consulting, or who know they have a passion for science, to consider other options like academic/industry research and graduate school.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Research is not without its challenges. Progress in science is often slow, and it seems like there are a million ways for things to go wrong. If you want to do research, be aware that it’s okay for things to go wrong (and they will!), and it’s not your fault. Many experiments will “fail” before they “work,” and often the lessons learned from these failures are the key to future success.
Margaret Schroeder is a bioengineering major concentrating in healthcare management. She is a member of the Class of 2018 and will be submatriculating into Penn’s bioengineering Master’s program after graduation, and plans to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in the field. Her favorite thing about being an M&T are the best friends she has made through the Program.