NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S4E1: Demystifying Undergraduate Research

June 30, 2023 NINDS Season 4 Episode 1
S4E1: Demystifying Undergraduate Research
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
More Info
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S4E1: Demystifying Undergraduate Research
Jun 30, 2023 Season 4 Episode 1

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In the first episode of the season, we talk about how to get started in undergraduate research, what undergraduates need to know about types of research opportunities available, how to find a lab, and what makes a successful research experience.

Featuring Michael D.L. Johnson, PhD, Director, National Summer Undergraduate Research Project and Associate Professor, University of Arizona; Hannah D. Nacht, NIH Diversity Fellow and Undergraduate student, Rutgers University and Oregon State University; and Ya’el Courtney, PhD candidate, Harvard University.


Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In the first episode of the season, we talk about how to get started in undergraduate research, what undergraduates need to know about types of research opportunities available, how to find a lab, and what makes a successful research experience.

Featuring Michael D.L. Johnson, PhD, Director, National Summer Undergraduate Research Project and Associate Professor, University of Arizona; Hannah D. Nacht, NIH Diversity Fellow and Undergraduate student, Rutgers University and Oregon State University; and Ya’el Courtney, PhD candidate, Harvard University.


Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: [intro music] Welcome to season four of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve where we discuss the unwritten rules or hidden curriculum of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job.

[00:00:21] Marguerite Matthews: Hello, I'm Marguerite Matthews, a program director at NINDS. 

[00:00:26] Lauren Ullrich: And I'm Lauren Ullrich also a program director at NINDS. And we're your hosts today. 

[00:00:31] Marguerite Matthews: In our first episode of season four, we're going to talk about how to get started in undergraduate research, including what undergraduates need to know about types of research opportunities available, how to find a lab, and what makes a successful research experience. [music]

 Joining us today are Hannah D. Nacht, Ya'el Courtney, and Dr. Michael D.L. Johnson. Let's start with introductions. 

[00:01:01] Hannah Nacht: So I'm Hannah D. Nacht. I'm an undergraduate fellow in the lab of Dr. Victoria Abraira in the Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, which resides within the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Since being awarded the gift that is the NIH Diversity Fellowship, I have been [laughs] so lucky to study something that I'm really fascinated by, which is movement. In empirical terms, I study a subtype of interneurons that reside within the deep dorsal horn that take in convergent information from non noxious peripheral sensory neurons. And they act as a gate during the relay of sensory information to motor pools and supraspinal centers. 

What does that mean in dinner terms when like you just wanna understand that and you don't want all the jargon? I study these really cool kinds of cells. They live in the spinal cord. They do tons of work such as taking in information about touch, texture, muscle tension. And these particular cells use this information to communicate with other cells in the spinal cord, which can make movement happen, like walking, running, jumping, so on and so forth. And to what degree these cells actually influence movement, we don't know. And that's why we study it. So in its own right, we're learning about the spinal cord systems, which is super beautiful and fabulous in its own sense. But then we're also learning more information because sometimes these systems don't function in the way that we wish they would, for example, with neurodegenerative disorders. That is what I study [laughs] and my hobby, um, outside of work is like anything that enforces or supports connections. So learning languages, cooking, things like this that bring community and people together.

Um, but then like, don't, don't be fooled. I also like to watch Netflix on my couch for like, an embarrassing amount of hours. [laughs] 

[00:02:48] Marguerite Matthews: Same. 

[00:02:49] Lauren Ullrich: We contain multitudes. 

[00:02:50] Marguerite Matthews: Yes, exactly.

[00:02:52] Ya’el Courtney: Hi, I'm Ya'el Courtney. I am at Harvard University and I'm a fourth year PhD student in the neuroscience program. But my lab actually resides in Boston Children's Hospital.

Uh, I work with Dr. Maria Lehtinen and we care a lot about brain development before birth. Specifically, we pay attention to the cells that will become all the neurons in your brain, which are called neural progenitors or stem cells. And we study how they get some of the signals that they need to properly differentiate and become the mature brain and how those signals are actually carried through cerebrospinal fluid.

So my thesis work is on an epithelial tissue that produces cerebrospinal fluid, the choroid plexus, in studying its modes of secretion. Um, one of my biggest passions outside of work is reading. I've worked very hard to like rekindle my love of reading for pleasure in graduate school, much to, like, my partner's chagrin when I ask, "can I bring a book to the party"?

And he'll look at me like, "no, you can't do that," [laughter] but you don't know when you're gonna need a book [laughter]!

[00:03:46] Lauren Ullrich: 

[00:03:47] Michael Johnson: Hi everyone. My name is Michael Johnson. I'm an Associate Professor in the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona. Uh, my laboratory studies how bacteria interact with their environment and specifically that interaction comes to play when they're eating or trying to find nutrients.

The nutrient that I study specifically is copper. It turns out that bacteria at the host- pathogen interface don't like copper that much, but our bodies actually do like copper, which is great. We use it in metabolism. We use it in a lot of things. So it creates this very interesting niche of, we can use copper to potentially kill bacteria. And our bodies already do that.

We already actually have a spray that we spray on, uh, vineyards or we use that same spray on potatoes to help protect them against different, uh, pathogens. So if you like wine and french fries, congratulations, you're now Team Copper. So we're trying to essentially understand how the bacteria fight back against copper and can we weaponize copper as a therapeutic.

Uh, things that I like to do outside of work, I recently got into uh, running outside once I moved to Tucson. Never thought that I would really get into it, and then that snowballed into saying, "Hey, do you wanna go biking as well?" And then, you know, I swam when I was a kid, so now I guess I'm a triathlete. So I just finished one, uh, this past weekend where I set a couple of personal bests, which I was very excited about. Uh, but yeah, I, I love the concept of this crosstraining and just kind of competing against yourself and, you know, reclaiming your time against all the other things that actually come to fight you for it. [music]

[00:05:32] Lauren Ullrich: So what was, or is, your experience with undergraduate research, um, both for our trainees on the call, did you do undergraduate research and then for our faculty member on the call, um, what is your experience with supervising undergraduates?

[00:05:51] Michael Johnson: So I can tell you I did not do a shred of undergraduate research in science. 

[00:05:57] Marguerite Matthews: Get him off the podcast. [laughter] 

[00:05:59] Michael Johnson: Get me off, I'm done. I actually did have a senior research project where I investigated the evolution of the trumpet. So I was a music major in college. 

So yeah, I, I came to the science world a little bit later than most. Um, But it did mean that I had a lot of catching up to do when I got to graduate school. Everybody else had had some research opportunities. Everybody else you know, seemed like they knew what they were talking about, and I just kind of was constantly just trying to run to stay in the same place.

 I think if I had started in undergrad, that that definitely would've been helpful. But to be fair, I didn't know that I wanted to do this in undergrad. So right now, um, I actually realize how valuable, uh, summer research programs are as a PI because we look at a lot of admissions applications for people trying to come into grad school.

And one of the things that we look at are, is this person serious about graduate school or you know, basically is this person serious about wanting to pursue science as a career? And one of the ways that they can show that they're serious is by doing research at different levels. Were they a technician, if they took time off? Did they do undergraduate research? Can they explain their undergraduate research project, instead of just saying, I did a list of techniques. 

I realized that with COVID there were a lot of people who missed out on summer research opportunities. A lot of these summer research programs are, uh, for underrepresented minority or minoritized populations, and I didn't want them to miss out ,you know, in that pool of applicants for graduate school. So I said, we can do something about this in a virtual space. Uh, so I made the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project. This year we'll go over 400 students helped. They will also be, uh, paid, which is also nice. Uh, but it's to facilitate , full-time research for eight weeks for, uh, someone in a completely remote capacity. It's been really, really nice seeing how people learn how to develop hypotheses and test them even in this, you know, between their mentor in this virtual space.

Cuz it doesn't always have to be done in person. But you know, I think that having that bench experience is still very, very helpful and very, very necessary. 

[00:08:14] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. That's really awesome. Congratulations. I remember when this program was born and so even just in a short time, it's really grown. 

[00:08:22] Michael Johnson: Thank you very much. 

[00:08:24] Hannah Nacht: That is incredible. I find the work that you do and the program that you offer to be incredible. It's actually very applicable to my situation. I'm currently in undergrad research. I do my research at a lab here in New Jersey at Rutgers, that's local to me, but I'm actually a student of Oregon State University, so I don't have access to any labs and, and exactly the situation you're describing, which is students who didn't have access, that is where I found my downfall.

And I am 26. I came to education very late. I dropped out of high school. So there was this huge gap of time where I, I didn't even take a high school biology or chemistry class. I've never been in a lab.

 I wound up reaching out to an advisor at my university who wasn't even my advisor, but he was running a neuroscience program, Dr. Kenton Hokanson. And I said like, "Hey, I, I am lost. I don't know how to access this. What should I do?" And he said," reach out and, and you should get some experience in a lab." And so I did. And that's why I love that, Dr. Johnson, you're offering these programs because for students like me, I think that that is such a, a joy and such a gift to offer people. 

And then part of, you know, talking about undergrad research is, is why should students do it?

By getting into the lab early and by being a part of undergrad research to be able to step into that at an earlier place, you can kind of take hold of the privilege that is doing something that you like, while also allowing yourself more experience to know that when you do graduate, "okay, this is the path I'm gonna follow because maybe I don't know exactly what I wanna do, but I know I definitely don't wanna do this," or "I know, I like to learn a little bit more about this."

So I think that undergrad experience is definitely helpful. Um, albeit, you know, you might need to put in a little extra effort if you don't have direct access to a facility.

[00:10:16] Ya’el Courtney: Yeah, absolutely wild. I also didn't finish high school.

[00:10:20] Hannah Nacht: Oh my god, hey! [laughs] 

[00:10:21] Ya’el Courtney: I don't know what the odds of that are. Um, 

[00:10:24] Marguerite Matthews: Look at that. Look at how we just be knowing! 

[00:10:27] Ya’el Courtney: That's wild. 

[00:10:28] Marguerite Matthews: Bringing worlds together! 

[00:10:30] Ya’el Courtney: Like, so, but that feeds really into then how my undergrad research experience went because I didn't graduate from high school and I ended up managing a Wendy's, right around the time where I would've been. And I gave a lot of intentional thought to, like, what I wanted to do with my life and did I even wanna go to college and what did I want in life? And throwing it back to my love of reading, I decided the way I was gonna do that was basically like go to the library, picked up whatever books felt cool to me about literally anything.

Wedding planning, wine, uh, abnormal psychology, and that's what got me. It's these books about abnormal psychology and like mental illness, which is something I was already passionate about. But I'd read these books and I was like, well, how do they know this stuff? And I would like see the references. And I was like, well, who does this work?

And I realized that it's scientists and it's psychologists and neuroscientists. And I was like, well, how do I do that? Oh, I gotta go to college. But to actually do the science, in the way that I wanted to, I realized I had to go to grad school too, so I knew all this like around the time I got my G.E.D. And had to like get into college and also then go to grad school.

But what that meant was actually really good because I went to Kent State University in Ohio and I started as a freshman knowing I wanted to go to grad school. So I googled, how do you go to grad school? I said, how do I do that? How do I be competitive? What do I need to do in science? And it said like, do an R.E.U. Do a Research Experience for Undergrads, these funded summer things.

And I was like, I don't know what that is. And so I like scrambled to find people to write me letters of rec and they did magically, thankfully, thank you Dr. Joel Hughes. But um, that got me into BP ENDURE at Wash U, which is crazy because that's a hard, I feel like a hard summer program to get into. And it's two summers of funded research at Washington University in St. Louis, uh, which just changed my life incredibly. And then that also helped me get involved in research at my undergraduate institution, uh, where I started in psychology research. But, um, as Hannah said, one of the reasons it's important to get involved in research is to figure out if you like it. And I realized I didn't like psychology research that much for myself because we were working with a lot of human participants.

We were doing these like stress and speaking studies, and I found myself really wanting to study like cells and like wet lab biology. So because I had some research experience with the humans in the psychology lab, I could say, you know, this is really important, but it's not what gets me super excited every day.

And I could go try a different kind of lab, which I did later in undergrad. So it was very formative in me figuring out that, A, I do love to do science and B, what kind of science I would love to do on a daily basis. 

[00:12:51] Marguerite Matthews: That's awesome. 

[00:12:52] Michael Johnson: One thing that I don't want people to feel intimidated by though is that if you didn't do an undergraduate research program, then you have no chance.

You know, I will say that the best time to start an undergraduate research project is as a freshman. The second best time to is to start right now. You know, if you are an undergraduate listening, do reach out to professors. Find out who has an interesting project, study what they're doing and say, you know what?

That's really interesting to me. I'd love to join. I'd love to learn more. Informational interviews are great, but, you know, I just don't want people to think that, you know, as we're talking about these undergraduate research opportunities, that if they even are past undergraduate and they're like, "oh no," you know, it's like no, there's still avenues to get into it, so again, I just want to do my due diligence and, and say that as someone who did not have any undergraduate research themselves and came to do what I do now and get to this point that I'm at now.

[00:13:52] Lauren Ullrich: No, that's a great point. And that'll be our next episode is sort of all the different flavors of research opportunities that are available for those who already have their bachelor's degree. 

[00:14:03] Michael Johnson: Cool.

[00:14:04] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. And talking about, um, potential barriers to science. Oftentimes money is one of them. Some people may think, "oh, well I don't, I don't have the time to play around in a lab and see if I like it or not," or "I have to work to pay my tuition or to support my family."

Can you all talk a little bit about, um, the types of research opportunities you've taken advantage of?is it something that's worth doing, say if you've got to pay bills? Like do you get paid to do research, um, as an undergraduate?

[00:14:37] Michael Johnson: At least at our university, uh, you can get class credit for it or you can get paid. Uh, usually it's not both. And there are work study opportunities for different laboratories. If you qualify for work study, you can actually do that in a particular laboratory, um, for things like racking dishes or doing assays, you can, you know, start from the bottom and work your way up as far as learning the ways of that particular laboratory.

There are laboratories who'll just say, we have no money, but you can try and take it for credit. And it's just a matter of speaking to those PIs about that particular situation, uh, to find out what's going on. 

[00:15:16] Hannah Nacht: But once you get into a lab, if you have a lab that is filled with people who are, you know, experienced with funding opportunities, there's a, there's a world out there. For example, I am now gonna be funded by an NIH diversity supplement. And because of this, my lab can afford to keep me on for two years because I'm getting paid, but it's not necessarily coming out of their pocket.

And I think that it, it is something to be said about the fact that it's not just a matter of do I want to work in a lab or do I not? I mean, that's why I'm doing online courses. I couldn't afford financially the tuition in New Jersey schools. But in addition to that, I also have to take care of family members. So time-wise, I couldn't afford to go to class multiple hours out of the day only to come home and then have to have to caretake. 

Which is to also say that, you know, being creative about how do we get to the place we wanna be, which it's kind of a double-edged sword because on the one hand you need to know people who can guide you in this way. But on the other hand, you can listen to resources like this that can tell you, you can address this when you go to, let's say, interview for a lab. Are there funding opportunities available? Are you willing to help me write a grant? Is this something you can take the time out as a mentor to do for me? And if somebody says no, then you know that there are other labs that might be willing and able and actually encouraging of you trying to access these opportunities. 

[00:16:41] Ya’el Courtney: Yeah, I mean, this is an issue I'm very passionate about. And I would say like, it's wonderful if someone is in a place where they can afford to do research without getting paid for it. And I think that many people aren't in that place, and a lot of people who can't afford it won't tell you that they can't.

And that's what happened to me. And I wish I had known that, you know, I could advocate for myself. I didn't have the vocabulary to ask about grants. I didn't know that these mechanisms existed, nor did I know that I had like the right to, or that I could. When I started research in college during the school year, uh, a lot, like Dr. Johnson said, often there was this, uh, dichotomy of for-credit or for money, but I didn't even know that. When I first started I was just volunteering. And then when I started talking about getting paid, I actually couldn't because for my degree track, I had to take it for credit. And so I'd go to class from 7:45 AM to noon, lab from noon to three, and then I'd go manage my Wendy's from four to midnight every day and then do homework after that.

And like, I got so sick cause I was so tired and I felt like there wasn't any other way. But, but I realized, I never ever told my PI how tight things were. Like at one point my laptop broke and there was just nothing I could do. So I would just go do all the work at like the public library. And I didn't tell her and that was a little bit on me, but I, I hope that everyone listening to this and that everyone else in every other realm of my life where I don't stop talking about this, knows that as an undergraduate there is somewhere you can find money for research and that, uh, if the PI's not willing to work with you to make that happen, it's probably a red flag. Like even if they don't inherently have the money, they should be willing to help look for a source or help you apply for something. 

[00:18:13] Michael Johnson: Many universities have offices for undergraduate research and oftentimes these people have their ear to the ground as far as which laboratories might have funding, which laboratories have good mentorship. Uh, they are tremendous resources for where you are as far as trying to find different access to funds, different programs that might be going on at that institution, different scholarships, different funding sources that you can apply for outside of the institution as well.

So, you know, part of it is also, as Hannah said, it's just like finding creative sources to get yourself into positions that serve you and, asking questions, asking people, you know, is the way to do that. 

[00:19:02] Marguerite Matthews: I think the burden oftentimes is put on people who are sort of at a disadvantage.

And I don't just mean socioeconomically, but just you don't know what you don't know. And so you're kind of operating a little bit from a deficit, right? You don't have the knowledge. And a lot of times what we're even tackling with this entire season is like this hidden curriculum, but also, for those who may feel like they're behind or they can't disclose what their situation is, there are other people who will happily tell you, "I'm not doing this unless I get paid. I don't care if my parents got the whole tuition bill. I don't have to work a day of my life. For my time I wanna get paid." So also don't think that you asking for the compensation somehow is telling someone what your situation is if you aren't quite ready to disclose that, or you haven't built that trust, right? Don't be afraid to ask what you need, whether you quote unquote need it or not. That should never be the requisite of whether or not your time is compensated. 

[00:20:02] Hannah Nacht: So like there's also, I think this, this notion of 'I'm new here, I'm, I'm a little bug in the lab of the jungle and like I can't ask for too much.'

 if you're working from a deficit, you might not know this innately, but there's something to be said about the fact that if you get funding, that looks good for everybody around you, so if your PI or your mentor or whoever it it is in the lab is willing to help you, you have now boosted up the lab's credentials and saying this is a lab that can help beyond just what is within the, the four walls of the lab.

[00:20:36] Lauren Ullrich: That's a great point.

So, we touched on this a little bit, but how does one go about finding a lab, right? They're just out there. Um, is there a website that I can go to where all the positions are conveniently, um, posted and I can choose at my leisure? Uh, listeners, all of our guests are shaking their heads no and smiling because why would it be that easy?

[00:21:02] Marguerite Matthews: Or you just start opening doors like, " Hey, anybody hiring?" [laughter] 

[00:21:11] Michael Johnson: Go to a science building and start knocking on doors, and it's like, 

[00:21:15] Lauren Ullrich: Right, 

[00:21:15] Michael Johnson: "Excuse me, how are you?". 

No, it, that part is... I get a lot of emails from undergrads, from prospective postbaccs, postdocs, graduate students, all over the spectrum. And the one thing that always stands out to me when somebody is interested in my laboratory is they'll actually mention something they read of mine. They'll mention a paper, and there's no quicker way to a PI's ego than to say that you read their paper. 

[00:21:47] Lauren Ullrich: [chuckles]

[00:21:47] Marguerite Matthews: Yes. 

[00:21:48] Michael Johnson: Other things I would say is, you know, having a very specific and catered email to that particular PI. Don't just say, Dear Sir, Dear Madam, Dear Professor, uh, actually addressing them specifically, uh, because then I know that it's addressed to me and not just a hundred other people. Uh, I'm, I know I'm about to get petty up in here. 

[00:22:15] Marguerite Matthews: Y'all, do y'all have y'all notepads out? Need a pen? Just sit down somewhere in a quiet space and learn. 

[00:22:23] Michael Johnson: If you use justify text in your email. Automatic done. Just like, I delete. Sorry. Mm-mm. 

[00:22:31] Marguerite Matthews: Oh Michael, we are kindred spirits. 

[00:22:33] Michael Johnson: Like, but in my experience, when I see those emails, they are the ones that just are trying to cast the largest wide net to anybody that they can. But it's those, you know, more specific emails that come to me that says, okay, well this person is actually genuinely interested in doing research in my laboratory. And those are the people that I at least meet with.

And if I can't help them, then I find out what their interests are and try to find somebody else that can, because that's what this mission is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be about spreading research, allowing people to understand and learn about this particular craft.

We can publish papers until the end of time, right? We, we can do that, um, as much as we want. We can make all these scientific advances. But you know, I, I think that fundamentally the mission is training at a university, so that we can really protect this craft that we all love so much in science.

And so if I'm not helping them, if I'm not doing my due diligence, then, then I'm not from my point of view, doing my job. So, but you gotta help me, help you. You gotta tell me what you need and justify text is not telling me that. [laughter]

[00:23:50] Lauren Ullrich: Talk about the hidden curriculum. [laughter] 

[00:23:53] Ya’el Courtney: Yeah, I mean, following right along with that from the other perspective, uh, emails is the way I did it. So I was coming in as a freshman, a huge university, like 35,000 kids. So professors don't know you personally.

So even if I'm in a biology class, there's 200 kids, they are not taking the bandwidth to talk to you after. And I didn't know where the labs were. I didn't even know who had a lab. And so I went to just my Kent State University webpage. I found like a research faculty tab, looked at the descriptions and cold emailed, but personally cold emailed, right?

I said, "Hey, I think this work you're doing with neuroendocrinology is really amazing. I like how you're studying sex differences in the onset of neurogeneration. I don't even know how to pipette. Here's what I'm looking for. Would you be willing to talk to me? I'd love the chance to get a research experience."

I probably had like a 5% response rate. But that's fine. And I got in a lab eventually, and I did just email research faculty who had their emails posted and a description of their work. 

[00:24:47] Michael Johnson: I would've responded to that. 

[00:24:49] Marguerite Matthews: All you need is one response. That's it. 

[00:24:51] Lauren Ullrich: Mm-hmm. 

[00:24:51] Ya’el Courtney: Yeah. 

[00:24:51] Marguerite Matthews: You just need one. 

[00:24:53] Hannah Nacht: This is absolutely wild, because mind you, I'm an online student from a university on the other side of the country.

I've never been to Rutgers. So I'm sitting here looking through the faculty page of Rutgers and saying, what lab appeals to me because I'm not gonna get in. Dr. Hokinson who advised me to reach out to labs near me to get some in-person experience, he was like, listen, go in expecting to fail. You're not gonna get responses from the majority of people. Some of the people you'll get interviews with, you might not go. And I was like, okay, cool. So I'm looking at these lists and I email one lab. I'm like, you know what, I'll start with one lab a day. Let me make sure I'm doing this correct. And I thought I was so unique to come at this from emailing. I thought everybody else had their professor or knew a friend who was in a lab. So I was like, I gotta make this email the best email you've ever read. This is a piece of literature that is going down in the books.

And so I emailed what was an unholy amount of text and I'm emailing this huge thing to Dr. Abraira and I'm like, but the thing is, is in this email, again, high school dropout. Just like Ya'el's saying, I couldn't even tell you what a pipette is. Does it have two Ts to spell the word? I don't know. And so I have to email this email and say to her, here is why you should take me, even though I don't even know if I can do the work you're expecting of me.

And so what do I do? I come at this from a perspective of, listen, I know nothing about what goes on behind the doors of your lab, but I've been taking care of people for 10 years. I've been an adult with multiple careers, and I know how to take care of my business, and I can put in the work. If you're willing to meet me with the education and if you're willing to pair me with a mentor who can work with me on a daily basis, additionally to what you're willing to teach me, we can make something beautiful happen.

And I got an email back the next day, and it was probably not typical to receive an email back from the first and only lab I messaged. But I think there's something to be said about the fact that if you want something, you have to tell somebody why you are worth it. And I told them, I don't know if I can be worth it, but, like, I am damn near ready and willing to do everything I can to make this work. Are you willing to meet me halfway? 

And I think coming at it from that perspective allows the other person who opens that email to say, you don't just want this because you want it on your CV. You don't just want this 'cause your teacher told you you wanted it. You want this for you and you want this for us to make something better. And I think that's the best thing you can do is just put yourself out there in that capacity. 

[00:27:17] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, and there's-- perhaps with the exception of having justified text or not-- there's not a, I don't think there's a wrong way to approach someone.

When you're genuine and you're authentic to who you are, you don't have to fill out a form type of email template to get someone to respond to you. And again, some people, they may not even see the email. They may love to hire you if they actually read it, but maybe they didn't see it. Maybe it got crammed in with a bunch of other spam or, you know, questions about will you change my grade or whatever.

And so sometimes it's easy to be overlooked, but that, you just have to go for it and hope for the best, but, but respect what you're doing, right? Or what you're trying to accomplish. Like having some reverence for the person on the other end's time and for the profession, I think goes a long way.

You do not have to be an expert in science to get a scientist to want to hire you. 

[00:28:09] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. Because they're not going to be hiring you for your knowledge. 

[00:28:14] Marguerite Matthews: No. [laughs] 

[00:28:14] Lauren Ullrich: They're hiring you for your work ethic, right? They want follow through. They want someone who's gonna show up when they say they're gonna show up, that they're gonna take the science seriously.

A lot of times you're working with animals, you're working with people, like, these are lives. Um, like Marguerite said, like you need to have some respect for the science and they want people who are hungry to learn. So if you can honestly say that you demonstrate those qualities, the ignorance is not a problem. We're all ignorant in science. Like that's the one thing we all have in common. Uh, and it's about finding the answers. So, nobody's gonna gonna be upset if you're coming from that mentality. 

[00:28:57] Marguerite Matthews: And kind of shifting a little bit forward. So you get a response from the first person you cold email. They want to hire you in the lab or at least have you in the lab to learn some things. Um, how do you know if it's a good fit? Like

 I think this person that I'm working with is helping me learn more and is patient with me or maybe is the opposite of that, um, can you just talk to us about like the fit of a lab and a fit of a mentor?

[00:29:27] Ya’el Courtney: I think when I think about this, there's kind of three facets of a lab that I've kind of separately experienced, good or bad fit, and that's the people, the questions, and the techniques. 

Like you can like the questions the lab's asking, be very interested in what they're trying to answer. And that's what happened to me in my psychology labs. I'd be really passionate about understanding why people with certain mental illnesses weren't able to do the things they knew they should do right? Or weren't able to stop doing things they didn't think they should. But then I got to the lab and some of the techniques they used, I felt like were so far removed from the question that I got frustrated and it didn't feel satisfying to me.

Even though the mentor was great, my colleagues were great, and the questions were interesting. If you don't think the question's interesting, I don't know why you would've joined a lab, so hopefully you think the questions are interesting from the start. [laughter] Um, but then the, the people can also, um, determine the fit, whether that's the PI and how they interact with you or your direct day-to-day mentor, that that can really mess things up.

If your day-to-day mentor, say, doesn't want a mentee, that has happened to me and it was so crushing, and I was just like stranded. Uh, or the other peers in the lab and are they willing to take their time and teach you techniques and help you learn this jargon and the skills and then the whole scientific hierarchy.

So I think there's multiple facets and, at least in college, I found value in labs even if I didn't like the technique or wasn't that excited about the questions uh, if the people were good, I felt like at that point in undergrad I could still learn an awful lot about science from labs that weren't maybe a perfect fit technique or question wise. 

[00:30:55] Hannah Nacht: I completely agree that it is multifaceted and you will never know right off the bat and from just an hour conversation with a mentor or PI. And so it's gonna evolve over time knowing what that good fit is and also how to make it a good fit. How to communicate and how to work with each other to make it that way.

But there are things you can, without a doubt do from the jump that will help set you up for success, right? Like I think walking into an interview or a discussion with a PI or a possible mentor, you have to know yourself and you have to communicate based on that. I cannot stress enough, and this is science or not, but you can't walk into an interview without asking the questions that you need the answers to.

So for example, if you know without a doubt, I only learn by doing, ask somebody that you're interviewing with, "Hey, how do you teach? Do you teach by showing? Do you teach by sitting with us while we go through it?" If you know that, you know, "Hey, I need to take a mental health day every few months, what is your stance on mental health and how does that interact in our communication and relationship?"

These are things that should be addressed and that are not selfish because ultimately you are asking for the purpose of everybody having a, a successful outcome in this dynamic. And I think asking these questions and starting with this open communication, even if it's a little uncomfortable, and even if that's not necessarily your M.O., it allows you to understand that I am a person and you are a person who has capabilities and needs, and we need to understand if these capabilities and needs are gonna fit with each other. And you can do that in a respectful and professional manner by asking, what is your teaching style? What do you expect of me as a mentee? What do you expect of me in the lab, outside of the lab, et cetera? And asking these questions, I think helps you understand, you are also in control of knowing what you're about to walk into. If you allow yourself the, the time and energy to figure that out before you even say yes to it.

[00:32:50] Michael Johnson: It is difficult to know all of those variables, when you've never really set foot into a laboratory.You don't know what questions to ask. You don't know how the research is, you don't know how that machine works. You don't know if there are two t's in the pipette. So, you know, I think that sometimes you need to have a lot of self-reflection to say, okay, what are the things that I'm trying to accomplish here just globally? What is the time that I'm willing to put in? And I'm not asking anyone to overwork themselves but learning science isn't exactly the easiest thing to do either. And it is a challenge to it. And, and that's kind of what makes it fun for a lot of us, because we're putting together puzzles, we're taking apart puzzles. Like, allowing yourself to immerse yourself in that environment before you make those particular calls while, you know, kind of having those standards. You know, it just really takes a lot of self-reflection to be able to say, what is it here that I want to serve me? Uh, and if those things don't align, giving yourself the permission to walk away from that particular situation and not throwing away all of science with that one situation, but maybe saying there's another laboratory or there's something else.

[00:34:06] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. And I think this segues perfectly into our next question, which is what makes a successful undergraduate research experience, right? Like, what are the kinds of things that you might expect to learn? 

[00:34:17] Michael Johnson: I would love for someone at the end of their undergraduate research in my laboratory to be able to ask their own questions. And be able to say, based on what I've done here, this is how I would move on. This is an experiment that I would run. I read this paper and it said, oh my gosh, if you go there, woo. [laughter] 

there is a fundamental difference between someone who's doing work for a paycheck versus someone who's completely invested in that particular opportunity and saying, I'm going to, even while I'm getting paid, put my mind into overdrive in this particular situation because it serves me to do that.

And finding those people, having those people in the laboratory is just phenomenal. 

They ask other people in the laboratory if they need help. They're curious about other people's projects. They're hungry about learning more. Those are the individuals that end up having, I think, the, the most robust undergraduate research projects because as they're learning from everybody in the laboratory, they're also saying, okay, I now know this.

So when they go to their graduate school interview, they can say, oh yeah, this person worked on this, this person worked on this. Here's the entire picture and here's right here, where is where I fit in. And understanding that role in science only comes from that level of going to everybody in the laboratory asking those questions, having that passion, having that level of comfort, uh, in the laboratory to move forward.

I'm not saying that there aren't really, really smart people who can come in and just, like that, pick it up, but I do think that the majority of us are not like that. And we need that particular time and we need that curiosity to kind of burn that flame hotter so that we can learn more. 

[00:36:15] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. 

[00:36:16] Ya’el Courtney: I agree with everything Dr. Johnson just said. And so I'm offering an additional perspective, which I didn't have until I mentored a few undergrads so far in my PhD, which is that I think a successful undergrad research experience tells you whether or not you like doing science. And in order to determine that, you have to go wholeheartedly into it.

Like Dr. Johnson was just saying, right? You have to really sincerely become immersed in the science, learn how the scientific hierarchy works, learn the currency of science, learn what, how to ask experimental questions. And it's only if you are able to kind of understand and immerse yourself in those things that you understand if being a scientist is something you'd like to do.

And I think that's what these undergrad experiences are about. It's asking, do I want to do this and do I enjoy this? And even if the answer is no, I think it's a successful experience because you've learned that about yourself.

[00:37:08] Marguerite Matthews: That part. 

[00:37:09] Hannah Nacht: I could not agree more with everything, Nobody in this conversation has said you should leave undergrad learning what, you know, this inhibitor does and how it does it and this and that. Like nobody in this, in the last 10 minutes has discussed the specifics of anything you'll find in a paper.

But what everybody has discussed and reinforced is that your undergrad, and quite frankly all of your career, but especially in your undergrad research or research in general, you're learning just as much about yourself as you are cells and molecules and processes and pipetting and how to spell pipette.

And like the thing is [laughter] 

[00:37:45] Marguerite Matthews: It has -two Ts! 

[00:37:46] Hannah Nacht: Two Ts baby, two Ts! [laughs] And the thing is, is that this is just indicative of the fact that change is abundant in the human experience. And the lab is not this vacuum where people walk in and they're scientists and they walk out and they're humans. It's, it's just not the case.

And so when you walk into your lab, as intimidating as the environment might be, as insecure as you might feel, as ignorant as you might feel, you are ultimately a person existing in a space with people around you. and the thing is, is that science can feel distant, but if you go in understanding that like this is ultimately learning about you as a person and those around you and how to contribute and work together as a team and how to be passionate and how to discuss when maybe you're not passionate, but we could still make this work. You're not chasing this idea of being smart as everybody else.

Instead, you kind of now exist in this pocket of appreciation and learning where fear of failure and sounding dumb are not stopping you from actually being successful and they're not stopping you from making connections and they're not stopping you from learning more ultimately about yourself and those around you.

And I think that's a good way to leave a lab with genuine interests, a work ethic, communication skills, fulfilling relationships. Instead of just being afraid of like power dynamics and sounding stupid, which you could feel like that until you die. You could feel like that for 80 years. If you don't change that perspective with understanding that like this is just as much about learning about yourself and those around you as it is what you're reading in these gargantuan papers.

[00:39:26] Marguerite Matthews: The podcast just became a pulpit [laughter] Preaching. Hannah, you preaching. 

[00:39:31] Michael Johnson: I mean, that was a lot there. That was a lot there. 

[00:39:34] Lauren Ullrich: Hannah, I think there are some scientists, like full grown, a hundred percent think they're developed scientists, that don't understand that science is done by human beings. 

[00:39:44] Marguerite Matthews: I can tell you right now, I put my entire life savings that it is true. [laughter] I interact with them quite frequently in fact. 

[00:39:52] Lauren Ullrich: Right? And like science isn't this just like thing that exists. It is created and done by humans. And the whole reason we have the scientific method, is because we cannot be trusted as people not to have biases and, and all this stuff, right? And that is a huge part of what you are learning in, in the undergraduate experience. So Hannah, you're way, way ahead of of things as an undergrad. 

[00:40:15] Michael Johnson: Where, where you trying to go to grad school? [laughter] 

[00:40:18] Hannah Nacht: Listen, listen Dr. Johnson, you know I write a mean email. You gimme your address and we'll talk! [laughter]

[00:40:27] Marguerite Matthews: No, lemme lemme just vouch. If you ever receive an email from Hannah, you are going to absolutely be touched. You're gonna go through a series of emotions and be like, I love this person. I don't even know her, but like, I love her. 

[00:40:42] Michael Johnson: I was just gonna say, uh, I think when, when, you know, along the lines of what Hannah said, a lot of times people do come into a laboratory and they put far too much pressure on themselves.

You know, they act as if like the PI's gonna say, here's a paper, solve cancer by the morning I'm out, [laughter] right? And it's just like, oh my gosh, like, oh, how, how am I gonna catch up? How am I, it's like, no, like no one hires an undergrad to solve the mysteries of the universe. 

It's really just saying, this is a learning opportunity. Seize it. 

[00:41:16] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think this, um, conversation steers us really well into sort of the last thing we'll touch on in this episode, which is imposter syndrome.

And if you've never heard of the term imposter syndrome or imposter feelings, it's essentially having doubt about your competence, your skills, your abilities, and this fear that you'll be exposed as a fraud and oftentimes these are feelings had by people who are very accomplished, very competent, but it doesn't take away from these feelings. And so, um, in talking about this hidden curriculum, I think it's important to address imposter syndrome. I mean, it can be useful to validate people's feelings that they don't belong in science, but it can also hide some structural reasons why people feel that way.

So can you all some things about what you understand about imposter syndrome, if you've ever experienced it, and how you deal with it, either on a personal level or how you've counseled someone else that may have those feelings?

[00:42:21] Michael Johnson: I, I can definitely talk about this. 

[00:42:25] Marguerite Matthews: Oh, this is getting good. Lemme wait, hold on. Lemme get comfortable cause I feel like you have to say something good, Michael. [laughter]

[00:42:31] Michael Johnson: I am a tenured professor with over 7 million, or I lose track on how many dollars I brought in as a PI to this institution to study my research, to run summer undergraduate research programs; I run programs for post-doctoral fellowships; I do things with my scientific Society for graduate programs. I just got a named professorship at the institution, which is awesome. I am an accomplished individual and I appreciate that. And those are just stating the facts of things that I've done. 

Yet, somehow I still think that somewhere it's just all going to go poof. It's all just gonna dissolve. It's all the ground's gonna fall out from under me. And how do we get around that? How do we overcome that? We find those who believe in us and we listen to them more than we listen to that voice. My wife told me, you know, when I was going up for tenure, she said, look, you're an extroverted Black man who's good in science, who has all these connections. If this doesn't work out, something else will. So you look for people to put words like that into your soul so that you have a bank of those.

So when that, "do I belong here?" Comes in, that "am I going to be successful?" Comes in, you can, you know, get your squirt bottle like it's a cat on furniture [laughter] and just start spraying. And it's just, you know, it's one of those things that you have to keep speaking positive things into yourself to overcome that. But those voices, those inklings are still there. I don't think that they will ever go away. We just need to come up with the tools to combat them when they do. 

There's plenty of negative self-talk that the world is gonna do to you. You don't need to add on. Your-- your voice does not need to be part of the chorus. 

It doesn't. 

[00:44:49] Ya’el Courtney: I also like think about it, like talking back to these thoughts, right? And like arguing back.

And I can try the facts of I've accomplished X, Y, and Z. That doesn't usually work that well for me, but talking to non-scientists is so good. Uh, I was a bartender throughout college and the way, like my colleagues and my clients gassed me up when I was like [laughter] talking like, "girl, like what you do every day is so beyond us and also amazing, like, keep it up." And I'm like, oh my God, no it's not. But thank you. And then it helped. So it helped just to get outta that scientific bubble where it feels, even if your peers are nice, it still feels like everyone is so smart. And this, like, I'm not really at that level, right? But then you kinda just get outta that bubble and you remember that it's such a privilege to be here and what you're doing is really cool. And it's not about who's smartest. I really love my science and I am careful to be a good scientist, and that's what it takes. 

Um, the other thing that's helped me is, uh, when I got into my grad program, I was like, ha! tricked 'em, kind of thing, right? [laughter] It's like, ah, you know, and this, this man who was actually, he was the dean of the department, but he's in admissions and I kind of like mentioned this to him once. He's like, that's an insult because I've been on this admissions committee for 20 years. We don't get tricked. We know what we're doing. He's like, we picked you like, on purpose. Uh, and so that, that helps a little bit, right? It's, it's everything helps a little bit. Whether it's people outside of the bubble of science or people saying, you know, you didn't get this position by mistake. We really do understand where you're coming from and your qualifications, and we really purposely picked you. We want you for this. 

[00:46:17] Marguerite Matthews: I mean, I deeply struggle with imposter syndrome. , I walk into this lab. Mm. Again, no lab experience, even in high school, nothing. I have tattoos from the shoulders down to the legs. I, I speak very relaxed and informal vernacular, which is not necessarily the energy that is in a lot of labs.

[00:46:34] Hannah Nacht: And you know, I think that, there's this preconceived notion of this is what somebody or something in a lab looks like, and that is never the case. And are there some labs that fit that to the T? A hundred percent. But there are also labs like mine, which is going to not only want the most varied population of folks, but it's also gonna be openly discussed and, and our identities and our characteristics are gonna be discussed and valued.

And I think that, you know, when you walk into a lab and if you feel imposter syndrome You have to remind yourself, okay, maybe I'm not an expert in what I'm walking into. But I'm a person and I'm successful in other ways and I've, I've made business happen. Like if, if you put down my history on a piece of paper, three successful careers, caretaker, this, that, you look at that person and you think they can work and they can do something in a lab. 

But when I walk in, because I don't know how to read a paper the same way other people do, I now feel small and 110% there are something to be said about the fact that there are systems that are not built for certain people, and walking into that system can make you feel small. And people in those systems can make you feel small. 

But part of, of fighting against that struggle, and this is a, a piece of advice that Dr. Matthews graciously gifted me, is don't be afraid to speak up. Don't be afraid to ask questions. When you're walking in there, you walk in there as yourself, not as a carbon copy of the person next to you . And in the grand scheme of things, nobody's expecting you to come up with the greatest answer, but what you can do is walk in there and have some confidence in yourself.

you walk in understanding that maybe this system wasn't built for you, but it's changing. And, and a way to make a change is to be a part of it and to bust your behind when you have the, the opportunity and the gift to take part of it because you are worth that. And the people around you would not have you in this lab if they didn't agree, whether they say it or not. 

[00:48:28] Marguerite Matthews: Can we just pass the collection plate for [laughter], minister Hannah's oration? 

[00:48:33] Hannah Nacht: Thank you. Thank you. 


[00:48:37] Marguerite Matthews: Tambourine. 

[00:48:38] Hannah Nacht: I have to , listen, I have to give credit to my direct mentor, Dr. Jaclyn Eisdorfer, because when I tell you I, last night, 8:30, she calls me and she said, all right, what are we talking about?

And I was like, "Jack, I dunno what to say. I dunno how to talk on this podcast." And she guided me through this. So that is her very, very well deserved shout out because she, she allows the lab to feel like a place where these things can actually take place. So credit where it's due, like acknowledge the people around you who let this happen to.

[00:49:07] Marguerite Matthews: Amen. 

[00:49:08] Ya’el Courtney: I wanna extra emphasize something you said because I forgot how important it was to my journey until you said it. And that was remembering that we are not only scientists. Um, if my experiments fail for three weeks, that used to lead to a lot of imposter syndrome for me. But now it's especially my involvement with teaching and mentoring, that has helped because I'm not just a scientist.

I love doing science, but I'm a teacher and a mentor, and a sister, and a friend, and so many other things that add deep meaning to my life that if I don't feel like I'm a very good scientist for a month, it doesn't actually bring me down that much. Like I'm gonna pay attention to why my experiments aren't working.

I'm gonna be careful. I'm gonna design different experiments and troubleshoot, but I'm not crushed. I'm not like crying myself to sleep. I'm okay. Because I'll figure it out and I have a lot of other things going for me, and that's been really pivotal in the way I see myself. 

[00:49:57] Marguerite Matthews: As Lauren said at the top of the episode, we contain multitudes.

[00:50:00] Lauren Ullrich: Mm-hmm. And the faster you can get that externalizing mentality, right, that these things that happen, they're not a reflection of who you are. They're a reflection of like things that you do or things that other people do, right? But that, that's very separate from who you are at, at your core being. And the most important thing in science is to just keep trying, right? Like, it's not about being smart, it's about being persistent and creative. 


[00:50:34] Marguerite Matthews: A very wise cartoon fish once said, just keep swimming. [laughter] [music]

[00:50:40] Lauren Ullrich: All right. Thank you all so much for sharing your wisdom today. Uh, can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice for our audience? 

[00:50:53] Ya’el Courtney: I am, uh, sharing a piece of advice that someone I don't even remember gave me on Twitter, but that sticks with me very often. And it's, especially as an undergrad, take every opportunity to share your research. Every time you're asked to give a talk, right. Obviously as professor you probably can't do that. Um, but within the bandwidth you have, even if you're a little uncomfortable with it, do it. Uh, in undergrad, the stakes are very low and that you can only grow and benefit from like trying to explain your research in different settings and to different people, whether that's to, uh, the general public or to your partner who asks you about your research or in a poster presentation or anywhere.

Only good things come from talking about your research and learning to understand it more and communicate it more. 

[00:51:34] Marguerite Matthews: That's fantastic. I love that. 

[00:51:35] Hannah Nacht: Agreed. 

[00:51:36] Michael Johnson: My parting advice would be, fortune favors the bold. If you are not willing to put yourself out there, then, I'm sorry, there are a lot of other people who are, and that's just the fact of life. It might be unfair, but it's a fact of life. 

So I will say that if you are hungry for that opportunity, hungry for that potential career option for yourself, then you have to put yourself out there. And that means learning how to deal with failure. Um, we do that a lot in our, in the, in the laboratory. It's basically just how do you learn how to fail with grace?

Or how do you just learn how to-- so many ways not to do something or that don't work. Um, but it's learning how to deal with that, learning how to become comfortable in that chaos that can be "I don't know something." Um, and that's hard, that's, that's frustrating, it's, it's intimidating, but in the end, It is better to have put yourself out there and have it not work out than to regret not doing it in the first place. So be bold.

[00:52:50] Marguerite Matthews: Be bold. 

[00:52:51] Hannah Nacht: I think if I have any advice, it is offer yourself as much compassion as you can offer others appreciation, because this is a very easy world to feel small, a very easy world to feel like you will never know enough. And if you can offer yourself compassion while simultaneously showing endless appreciation and genuinely seeing those around you and what they do and how they are supporting you, and also just doing their best.

I think it, it will lead you to a place where no matter what you leave with, you can always leave knowing that you are offering yourself enough space to do your best. And I think that that is the best thing you can do in, in an industry where everybody is burnt out and everybody is doing more than they can handle. And to see that in other people allows you a wonderful opportunity to, to both let them be seen and see that within yourself. 

[00:53:52] Lauren Ullrich: Very well put. Marguerite, what's your advice?

[00:53:55] Marguerite Matthews: My advice would be to bring your best self to this opportunity. It's important to take it seriously and not just treat it like something to do, a box to check, but something that is an honest attempt to bring whatever it is that you have, even if that's that you are a vessel willing to be filled with knowledge and learning something from someone and showing them that you have a reverence for the work that they're doing. And even if it turns out you thought you liked the questions, but doing the actual experiments is not really as glamorous as you thought it would be.

You have to work with rodents and they're peeing all over you, and you just don't, [laughter] you don't like having to have those behavioral test days. Like, you know, it's okay to not like something, but it's not okay to treat someone's life's work in many cases as if it were just something that you are passively doing or you haven't committed to what it is that you're doing. And so I think it's really important that whatever you have to offer a lab, that you do it well. And think even to what Hannah was saying, like, honor the experience and give gratitude to people.

And if it means that you need to move on to something else, that you really can walk away and say, I did the best that I could. It didn't work out for me. Or, I did the best that I could and this was amazing, I can't wait to, to have a different experience as I move further in my career. What about you, Lauren? What's your advice? 

[00:55:25] Lauren Ullrich: I think I'll just underscore kind of a theme that was running throughout the episode, which is that science is not just the doing of science, it's also just learning how science works. So this could be everything from like, learning how to network, learning, um, organizational skills, the communication skills, um, learning what professional behavior means in science. Um, there's a whole piece about like, uh, dress codes and, and things like that that we didn't even touch on, right?

But that, um, once you know what the culture is, then you can make intentional decisions to say, you know, I am going to talk this way or dress this way on purpose knowing what, what people might think versus like doing it unintentionally and then wondering, you know, why you're getting reactions you are. And then you can also work very intentionally to start to be the change that we had talked about earlier. Um, but knowing what the default is, is a huge part of that research experience and is it for you or maybe it's not for you. And that's a, a beautiful thing to learn. [outro music] 

 That's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you so much to our guests this week for sharing their expertise, and thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. We'll see you next time when we tackle what to do next after finishing undergrad. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at

[00:56:59] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. You can email us your questions at Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.