Our Campus, Our Treasure: Experiencing Undergraduate Research

                                                              By Priscila Cevallos

“Science discovery is an irrational act. It’s an intuition, which turns out to be reality at the end of it. I see no difference between a scientist developing a marvelous discovery and an artist a painting.” -Carlo Rubbia 

There is nothing like walking around UT campus first semester of freshman year. Rows and rows of organizations each more alluring than the next cover the West Mall, as upperclassmen entice you to join their organization with free candy and gifts. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. One of the overarching themes I gathered from all the emails, flyers, and presentations that I was inundated with, was about the importance of participating in undergraduate research. I had always envisioned my college experience consisting of a path to get involved in the newest scientific breakthroughs that I read about in Scientific American and other journals. As a freshman, I was full of motivation to explore the very opportunities I had been dreaming of being a part of since I was little. When I talked to upperclassmen about research, many regretted not being more involved in scientific projects as an undergraduate, an experience that would prove invaluable at a later stage of their professional lives. 

The more I investigated research opportunities on campus, the more overwrought I became. I didn’t know where to begin, and I most certainly couldn’t decide what specific field of research I wanted to participate in. Should I look into neuroscience research on frogs? Addition research on fish or rats? Molecular genetic research? They all seemed so interesting to me! I felt like Alice in Wonderland stepping into an entire new world, a world where everything was proportionally bigger and mysterious, and in a magical new language called Jargon. I decided to enroll in a Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) class that first semester. FRI is a UT program solely for incoming freshman. Students are given the opportunity to participate in actual research in all areas of study, while engaging with professors, graduate students, and mentors. The first semester consists of an introductory class into research methodology, and in the second semester students apply what they have learned in a laboratory setting. During my second semester in the program, I participated in a molecular cloning lab that explored the exact mechanism for protein synthesis from mRNA templates using gene fragments. This first lab experience opened my eyes to the precise nature of conducting scientific research. It was fascinating being able to see the dynamic world of organelles as I acquired a depth of knowledge that my biology class alone couldn’t provide.  Working in the lab brought theory and practice together in a higher level of understanding that was exciting and peaked my curiosity. 

This research experience motivated me to pursue further opportunities. That following summer I began working in a neuroscience, pharmacology lab here at UT under Dr. Rueben Gonzales. This type of research was vastly different from what I had been doing, but many of the techniques I had learned in FRI helped make the transition easier. Almost two years later, I am still conducting research in this neuropharmacology lab. My first project here consisted on studying the effects of ethanol administration on levels of neuropeptides found in the brain of Long Evan rats. Throughout my time in the lab, I was quickly exposed to high tech laboratory techniques. These included microdialysis and biochemical assays, analyzing brain histology, the art of animal care, performing catharizations, conducting brain surgery on rats, learning how to make artificial cerebral spinal fluid, reading data, performing perfusion fixations, and even contributing to our laboratory publications. I was even awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship to fund my own project. Currently, I am working on a behavioral study comparing voluntary alcohol consumption between adolescent and adult male rats.  This project involves training adolescent rats to drink sucrose water and/or ethanol in an operant chamber setting. The ultimate goal of this study is to determine whether dopamine signaling that occurs during voluntary alcohol consumption is linked to a high rate of consumption and long-term effects of alcohol in these adolescent rats.  

Getting involved in research at UT has been one of the best decisions I’ve made during my undergraduate years so far. It had been hard making connections between topics that I was learning in biology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and neurobiology class. I thought of science as comprised of more far-off concepts – ones that I couldn’t really grasp to entirety or witness in action. It wasn’t until I was really immersed in research that I began to see the beautiful scientific web that interconnects all aspects of life. This learning was enhanced by the post-doctoral and graduate students who really embraced the undergraduate students, encouraging us to ask questions or make suggestions, explaining scientific methodology and thought process, and revealing how rewarding research can be.

When I graduate college and embark on the journey ahead, I hope I can feel that my college experience has not only enabled me to be a better scientist, but also given me a platform to use the creativity and passion I was instilled with conducting research to further pursue my intellectual interests, whether it be in medical school, in graduate school, or as a working professional. 

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