Undergraduate research can happen to anyone

August 8, 2011 at 9:28 AM

Undergraduate research can happen to anyone


Maryam Waheed QC’11 and Jim Stellar


There is probably no student at Queens whose undergraduate research topic is closer to the area of neuroscience that I studied (dopamine brain basis of cocaine addiction) for more than 30 years than Maryam.  Maybe this is why we became friends as I did not bring that laboratory to Queens College when I took the Provost’s job 2 years ago.  So, to this seems a perfect opportunity now to combine perspectives and examine how undergraduate research works.  To begin, I thought it best to let Maryam introduce herself.  So, my first set of questions are:  Who are you, how did you end up at Queens College, how did you get into research on dopamine, and what are your future plans?


I am a Muslim woman born in Pakistan and raised in the United States.  After High school I went to Rutgers University for the first semester of freshman year and soon found that it wasn’t for me. I wanted my college career to be in a smaller campus and living away from home was just not for me. So, I chose Queens, being that it was both small and close to home. I was introduced to the Ranaldi lab by my psychology professor who needed undergraduate research assistants in the lab she worked in. She got me interested the second she said, “rats.” I have never worked with animals under experimental conditions so I figured it may be something I might be interested in so I joined the lab in January of 2008. I didn’t necessarily choose to get into research on dopamine, it just happened. But, I am glad it did because it opened my eyes to the issue of cocaine addiction and more interestingly, the neuroscience behind it. I recently graduated from Queens College and I am going to start my first year as a Dental Student in the New York University College of Dentistry. I really hope to continue research at NYU.


This is great.  Now talk about what happened to you in the lab.  You changed countries and changed universities, so one could conclude that you are just a strong person, not intimidated by anything.  But I bet there is a story here about how doing research and amassing the technical skills and understanding of the experiments advanced your own confidence.  Talk about that effect if it happened.


Going to lab every week for 3-4 days was hard work. It really taught me how to stay on my feet. I had a schedule where I was assigned a certain amount of time that I had to give to running the experiment every morning. Sometimes, I had to be at lab 7 in the morning in order to finish in time for someone else to run their rats and then I rushed to class. We all had lab duties that needed to be done every week; sometimes they needed to be done twice a week. Mine, was to make equipment used for surgeries. This was considered the hardest and most unwanted job in the lab. Of course, I volunteered to take on this job because I like challenges. It taught me how to use my hands efficiently which to me seemed very beneficial for dentistry. The experiments were where most of my learning took place. Working with cocaine was a confidence booster in itself. Going into the running room every morning and working with operant chambers, cocaine and rats really made me feel like a scientist. Everything had to be exact, from the dosage of drug, to the rat’s home cage, to the time it spent in the experiment chamber. You know where I had the most fun?  Watching these rats self-administer cocaine! I remember once I stood in front of this one chamber (of course the rat couldn’t see me) to take a look at the rat’s behavior and I saw how motivated the rat was to get his next infusion of cocaine; he literally pressed the lever non-stop for 5 minutes. To me, that was amazing because the rat was willing to work so hard for even just the lowest dose of cocaine because to him it was reinforcing.


I cannot help but notice in this section you write the parallel between the rat working hard and you also working hard.  Of course, what we neuroscientists think is that the drug was stimulating the pleasure system.  You also seem very happy to take on hard tasks, arrive early in the lab, and enjoy the career development where an undergraduate feels like a scientist.  I think this is very important. So, I wonder if we could get you to comment on how important it was to you to “feel like a scientist” especially given the path you took to get to the lab.


Having the responsibilities that I had in the lab made me feel independent. Feeling independent is what really made me feel like a scientist. I had my own swipe card, which meant I had access to the lab at all times. I had access to the “drug fridge” which gave me the feeling of responsibility and trust. These are all attributes that I think define a scientist, along with the experiments and the daily running of rats of course. It was important for me to feel like a scientist because I think if I didn’t, I really had no point of being in the lab. Going to lab wasn’t just a requirement that I thought needed to be fulfilled. It was more. It was important for me to know why I was doing what I was doing. Injecting rats with cocaine every day wasn’t just done for the fun of it nor was it to enjoy the rats getting “high”. It was done to see the effects it had on their behavior and this was done in hopes to find an explanation for cocaine addiction in humans. It was done in hopes to find a “cure” for cocaine addiction. This is why feeling like a scientist was important to me and if I could somehow continue to instill this feeling in dental school, I wouldn’t let the opportunity pass.


Notice that authentic experiences create their own motivation.  It is not that College is inauthentic with its classroom format, but there is a contrived nature about it with its course syllabus to tell students where they are, predictable exams, presumption that nothing on a test will not have been somehow presented in class, and even the fact that students sit in the audience and the professor … well, professes.  Additionally, it is what we know.  So the real-world experience of an internship is different, like the first job after college.  No one has a syllabus for a job and the “exams” can come at anytime the client or the boss asks a question or something happens.  Oddly, working in a professor’s research lab has the same real-world qualities.  And you see the reaction above. Students love to be trusted with real responsibility and generally react well, nicely complementing their academic learning and enhancing their career development in college, like going to dental school at NYU.


Another point that we want to make implicitly is that this kind of interaction is open to everyone and can have particularly strong effects on ethnic/religious/gender groups where they might not feel such a path exists.  This is why Colleges, their administration, faculty, and particularly students, must reach out to make sure all are included in experiential education the way we also must do in classical academic education.  A great way to do that is having a role model.  And we have exactly that happening here. 


Finally, we notice that once a student does an internship or undergraduate research project or something like that outside the classroom, they often also want to help the institution operate and not act like some manufactured product (e.g. a ball bearing in a ball bearing factory just riding through the process) but to help run the institution.  We need them in higher education.

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