M.D. + a Ph.D.?

October 30, 2017

Summer research helps a student refine her career goals

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Grinnell offers many research experiences, including those within courses, Mentored Advanced Projects, and off-campus study.

“There are so many benefits to going outside your comfort zone,” Kang says. If you're looking for something different, she encourages you to review and apply for NSF REUs. Students work closely with faculty and other researchers on specific research projects. Students are granted stipends and, in many cases, assistance with housing and travel.

“Grinnell really encourages research experience. Everyone knows it is something you should do,” says Ashley Kang ’19, a French and biological chemistry double-major.

For last summer, she says, “I was intentionally looking for research opportunities so I could gain more research experience and refine my career goals.” So she applied for a National Science Foundation-funded research experience for undergraduates (REU) in structural biology at the University of Oklahoma.

She learned about the program from a friend who’d been a research volunteer in a lab at OU the year before. “I would not really have considered applying if my friend hadn’t talked to me about it. I think a lot of opportunities are spread through word-of-mouth,” Kang says.

The research

Seung Ah 'Ashley' Kang
At OU, Kang learned new lab techniques and how to use tools she didn’t use at Grinnell. “Different lab techniques make a difference in what you can do,” she says.

For example, “they have a machine called the mosquito. This machine sets up 96 well plates, each plate containing a different concentration of solutions. These wells are tiny so they would be a pain to do by hand. This is all done in under 15 minutes.”

She appreciated the close mentorship and working with more experienced researchers. The research project was her own, she says, but she wasn’t lost. "I was challenged and really liked the project and the program."

Structural biology is “the study of how physical 3D structure relates to a molecule’s biological function,” she says. Her research project focused on a protein, RR_1586, that appears to regulate gene expression in Clostridium difficile . C. diff is a highly contagious bacterium found in feces. It’s often spread in hospitals and nursing homes and is resistant to antibiotics, heat, and common disinfectants.

“My project aim was to characterize RR_1586 and gain more insight on how the structure of this protein changes when it is in its active and inactive state. The information that we gain from characterizing this protein will be helpful in learning how C. diff reacts to the environment, especially during infection.”

Career exploration

Kang took the opportunity to explore what she wants to do after Grinnell. “I got to talk to a PI [principal investigator] at a large university, along with current graduate students and post-docs. These individuals were able to give me personal stories and experiences and advice while they were in the midst of their career.”

She says she confirmed that she wants to get an M.D., but she realized she doesn’t want to pursue a Ph.D. “I think it’s so important to explore career options,” she says.


Ashley Kang and other REU program students
It wasn’t just the research and mentorship she loved. “There were 9 other undergraduate students in the same boat as me,” she says. “We had a good mix of students who aspired to get their Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s and even one student who wanted to be a dentist. But we all just wanted to gain more research experience and learn during our time there.”

She and the other REU students were also neighbors and spent the evenings enjoying each other’s company and exploring the region.

“We all lived next to each other, we became really good friends. Walked to work together, ate together, hung out together, went to the gym together. Honestly, it was awesome to meet other students from all around the country and learn to live on your own in a new place with new people for 2 months,” she says.

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