Getting into Undergraduate Research from Ghana
Caroline Apreku UA’18 and Jim Stellar
I first met Caroline when she was at a recent summer undergraduate research poster session at the Cancer Center on the Health Sciences campus of the University at Albany. She was presenting a study she had done in the laboratory of a professor on the effects of vitamin D on survival of a cell line of breast cancer cells in tissue culture. Although she was an undergraduate, she presented in the same way as would a graduate student. I also I found out that she was part of a remarkable program, CSTEP and that she was an international student from Ghana.
To get started, can you first tell us about CSTEP and how that program led you to this laboratory?
Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) was founded in 1987 through a Legislation to increase the number underrepresented and economic disadvantaged students who are in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). They focus on providing academic advisement, tutoring and mentoring to students in these disciplines. In addition, they also make themselves available to disadvantaged students in other disciplines. I am currently tutoring students in calculus, having previous obtained tutoring services myself.
This Summer, I applied for and was accepted into the University of Albany Summer Research Program (UASRP). This program featured 24 other students from various colleges around the country. Each student was paired with a mentor based their interest. I was honored to be paired with Dr. JoEllen Welsh who conducts Breast Cancer Research. I investigated the role of Vitamin D3 in the treatment of Breast Cancer Cells.
Can you tell us a little about what you did in that laboratory, keeping it non-technical for our readers? How long did you work? What was the final presentation?
For eight weeks, we were culturing breast cancer cells and treating them with Vitamin D3 to measure the effects it had on the cells. We realized that vitamin D3 is able to greatly inhibit the growth of the cells by inducing cell apoptosis (cell death). However, we were more focused on combining the vitamin D3 with Tamoxifen (a synthetic drug that treats breast cancer) to figure out if that was a more effective treatment.
We are currently researching on this but recent results show that treating the cells with the combination of Vitamin D3 and Tamoxifen, is a more effective method.
After the eight weeks of research, I presented my results at the 22nd Annual Buffalo McNair research Conference in Niagara, as well as a poster presentation at the 2nd Annual Cancer Research Symposium Day in Rensselaer.
Can you describe the impact on you as a person of learning to do this research and of being able to present it well? How did it affect your image of yourself so far bearing in mind that you have 2 more years before graduation as an undergraduate?
Honestly, when I began research, I did not enjoy it as much as I do now. The technical skill and language were new to me and made the beginning challenging. Coming from Ghana, I did not have the opportunity to be exposed to research but doing research here, made me realize certain traits about myself I did not know existed and could be developed. As time went by, I realized that research was another field I enjoyed immensely. This opportunity ignited my passion for science even more. It was the drive that woke me up every morning. When I got to the point where conducting my experiments became a personal desire rather than an internship, I realized I had found my calling.
The biggest challenge I worried about was the presentation. I constantly dreaded if I would be audible enough for my audience because I have an accent. However, with the encouragement and training from great mentors, I overcame this fear and presented confidently.
Now, I have gained confidence in my abilities and have become more knowledgeable than before. I believe I can accomplish any difficult task I put my mind to however challenging it may seem. This positive attitude I developed while conducting research, transformed my way of learning, as I am doing very well in school now.
You wrote in the response above about igniting your passion when you realized by doing it that you liked science and then a little later you wrote about gaining the confidence that you may have needed as an international student first to present and then generally. This connection seems very powerful to all students. Can you say something more detailed about how this connection worked in you at the time? Did passion and confidence rise together simultaneously, did the passion come before the confidence, or did they go in little steps from one to the other?
Usually when you get out of your comfort zone to start something new, it is very challenging. So you tend to doubt yourself along the way when situations are not going as planned. Some students like me, would feel a desire to overcome this new challenge and when we realize we cannot, we tend to question our capabilities. However, when we are finally able to persevere through it, the results are always self-rewarding.
During this research, there were times that I said to myself, “this is probably not for me, that’s why I find it frustrating”. Nevertheless, at the end, I found myself looking for another internship in the fall. Research built my confidence by showing me that with hard work and perseverance, I can achieve anything I put my mind to.
I wish I could say that my passion for research and the confidence I attained was realized simultaneously, but no. I had to work for it. When you find your passion, everything else does not just fall in place. You have to work for it. Confidence came to me as a gradual process. I had to build it by overcoming daily challenges and not giving up when I wanted to. Also, there was a strong support system around to help me; my faculty mentor, my graduate assistant, the staff of C-STEP, who were all very dedicated, patient and encouraging. I began to realize that they believed in me because they saw something in me I probably didn’t see in myself. That was where I realized that, maybe I can be that person they see me to be – and from there came my self-confidence!
We agree that students cannot learn confidence nearly as well in the classroom as they can in direct experiences, even if entirely within the academy as with undergraduate research with one’s university faculty. But that confidence comes from uniting what was learned as academic facts and theories with, in this case, laboratory experience in doing the research. Notice that the real test came when Caroline had to present that work she did with her head and her hands. That was when she had to take complete responsibility. Her faculty mentor, her graduate assistant, the staff of C-STEP were not there when she made that presentation. When I first met her, she was alone with her data at a poster. But one could see the human back-up invisibly supporting her presentation that I judged clearly at the graduate level or better. This is what medical schools and employers want. This is what humanity needs all over the world. It is called leadership. It is called Education that Works.