Persevering, adaptable and determined: BUILD students share lessons learned while pursuing research goals during a prolonged pandemic

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By Melissa Simon

When asked what the biggest challenge during the last year was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, BUILD students were mostly unanimous: the loss of hands-on experience in the lab.

Henry Nguyen, a Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) Project PATHWAYS trainee, said that while going remote was tough, he was lucky that his lab had the resources to continue their work with the understanding that there’s no expectation to work at a specific pace.

“This has been crucial in affirming and acknowledging that life is different now rather than trying to ignore it,” Nguyen said. He added that science isn’t always as glamorous as people think, and while experiments rarely go as planned, when they are successful it is even more rewarding.

“Adaptation is crucial to success in science, and never has this been more apparent than this past year,” Nguyen said.

To help students through the transition to virtual learning, they received guidance from their mentors through the Diversity Program Consortium, which uses mentoring to enhance individuals’ success in biomedical research training. 

Rather than the traditional in-person guidance students received in previous years, this year mentors connected with them virtually. 

Micah Starghill, another XULA Project PATHWAYS trainee, said the biggest lesson she learned from her mentor was that to do her best work, she needs to be healthy in all capacities. This advice came amidst two family deaths last semester, making it difficult to focus on her work. 

“My wonderful mentor told me to take as much time as I need to process, reflect and heal. Only when I felt ready is when I could continue my work and at whatever pace I felt was best for me,” Starghill said.

The most important thing is to stay positive and motivated because their research will make an impact on society, said Breyanah Graham, another XULA Project PATHWAYS trainee. 

“(My mentor taught me) to be okay with making mistakes and failing at something because a lot of the time, research might not go the way I want it to, but I need to find ways to adjust instead of wanting to give up,” Graham said. 

But keeping that motivation can be difficult, said Tyler Nelson of California State University, Long Beach’s CSULB BUILD program. 

“It has been hard to stay . . . excited to spend hours working on research tasks without having the hands-on experience of being inside the lab,” Nelson said. “Although it’s been challenging, I am grateful to have had extra time to focus on reading research and presenting my research at virtual conferences.”

Alexis Ceja, senior undergraduate at San Francisco State University and SF BUILD trainee, said weathering the changes from the pandemic has changed her perspective on what it means to be a researcher.

“I have realized how persevering, adaptable and determined researchers must be in order to conduct research,” Ceja said. “It is not easy and it is very admirable that so many researchers are remaining active and continuing to pursue research that they are passionate about.”

XULA Project PATHWAYS trainee Royce Hooks said no matter what difficulties he and his peers face, the most important thing to remember is that research isn’t easy but it’s worth it. 

“You are adding to the collective knowledge of mankind and your research can save lives,” Hooks said. “Even if things do not go as planned, you now know that new bit of information.”

At the end of the day, Nguyen said, the advancement of science as research is a truly collaborative process and will often require working with others to complete what can’t be done alone. It’s this concept that has inspired Nguyen to someday be a mentor. 

“Our mentors are there to help us and . . . we should not be afraid to ask for help and seek guidance,” he said.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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