Case Study: Erica

I’m a rising sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University double majoring in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. These two majors work well together, as I’m often able to use knowledge in one to create ideas for the other. I’d especially like to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. I’m not sure if I would go into academia, research, or industry, but I know that while I’m in school I’d like to explore all the different paths. 

I had never done research before, and I was excited at the prospect of trying something new. The idea of taking real problems and then designing a way to find new information and create a solution was so fascinating to me, and also a little scary. The researchers I talked to all seemed so smart, capable, and inspiring, and they all had fun with their work. One of my professors talked about her research sometimes, and I decided that I wanted to work in her lab. Not only did she work in biomedical engineering, but her research was extremely interesting, and she was such a wonderful person. I couldn’t imagine a better way to discover more about research and biomedical engineering, or a better mentor to learn under. 

I worked in the biomedical engineering labs at Carnegie Mellon University, and my specific lab focused on adipose tissue and silks. I spent most of my time on a project related to adipose fibrosis, which is when there is a high number of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins, making the tissue thicker, stiffer, and generally less healthy. We performed different tests and analyses on the fat samples to study the different properties of the fat tissue, with the overall goal of providing more specific and personalized medical treatment for individuals, as opposed to using fat tissue from one particular demographic and generalizing it to all others. We want to promote a more inclusive model of medicine that recognizes the differences in physiology of different groups of people and the subsequent need for personalized care. 

I’ve learned certain lab skills such as how to culture cells and prepare silk materials. But more importantly, I’ve learned how a research team functions together. We have weekly lab meetings where people share their recent developments, which is very fascinating to listen to, and their ideas for future plans. They also bring forth questions or issues they faced, and the rest of the team contributes ideas on how to solve it, which I really admire and enjoy. It makes the lab much more collaborative and productive, when everyone works together, no matter their background or experience. 

If you are unsure about whether you want to do research, I would say try it, because it’s 100% worth the experience. I was nervous about approaching faculty to ask if I could assist in research, but based on my experience and the experiences of those around me, faculty members are almost always very kind, welcoming, understanding, and enthusiastic. If you’re interested in working with them and their project, there’s no harm in asking, no matter your background or skill set. I was also nervous about getting started, since I had zero research experience, but the graduate students and professor were very instructive and patient. Even with no experience, it’s most definitely worth it to just try it out and learn something new. That’s the whole point of undergraduate research—to explore new areas of engineering and find something you enjoy. 

I would tell leaders who seek to be inclusive of underrepresented groups that some of these students, though perhaps not all, might feel overlooked by faculty, and they may be unsure how to make the proper connections or gain the experience to work in a research lab. It might be the first time a student gets to work in a research environment, so they might need some patience and guidance. I’ve found that making it very clear that it is a safe space where the individual is free to ask questions, suggest ideas, or even just feel confused can be extremely helpful in making them more comfortable and accepted. This might mean answering their questions with encouragement and patience, asking for their opinion during discussions, or simply telling them that their thoughts are appreciated and their confusion is understandable. Make it clear that their ideas are valid, and that if they have any concerns or grievances, their voice will be heard. This can make the biggest difference when a person is in a new environment, and it can really set the stage for future work together.

Students from underrepresented groups can sometimes feel uncertain about their abilities, their role, or their acceptance into the group. They also might have concerns that their opinions aren’t as valid as others’ or that they simply won’t be heard. One piece of advice I might give to faculty is that while yes, it’s very crucial to make it clear that the student’s ideas are appreciated and their questions are valid (perhaps by answering questions with patience, listening to their ideas with encouragement, and calming their uncertainties with sympathy), it is also equally important to step back and recognize that the faculty member does not have to provide support all by themselves. They can also provide connections to other areas of the school, whether it’s certain student groups, faculty, or services, so that the students can seek the support they need when they need it. By building that network of support around the students using outside resources, a faculty member can help students feel as secure and welcome as possible.