Just what research fields are open to SSTP applicants?
In October, the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbach, and Michael Young for their groundbreaking research into the genetic mechanisms that regulate the circadian rhythm of fruit flies. Here at the University of Iowa, meanwhile, SSTP mentor Dr. Bridget Lear has been performing her own groundbreaking research in the very same subject, and last summer, SSTP alumnnus Arshaq Saleem was a researcher in her lab. He spoke with us recently about his application, working in the lab, and his aspirations for the future.
The following interview has been edited for formatting.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Arshaq. How did you discover the Secondary Student Training Program?
I had attended the Blank Summer Institute for the Arts and Sciences when I was younger, so I wanted to continue. Additionally, some of my friends had participated in SSTP, and they gave very positive reviews. I wanted to gain hands-on experience doing research to see if I would like it as a potential career. Rather than just learning about concepts in textbooks, I figured it would be much more useful to apply them in a laboratory setting.
What were your research interests going into the program?
In my sophomore year, I had to write a research paper on genetic engineering. It was at this time that I stumbled across CRISPR/Cas9 as a gene-editing technology. I was intrigued by its potential in gene therapy, so I chose to write my paper about it. When applying to SSTP, I hoped that I would be able to work on a project related to CRISPR. Dr. Lear, my SSTP mentor, luckily gave me a project that used CRISPR to analyze how specific gene mutations in fruit flies affect circadian rhythms. The project was too long to be completed in my time at SSTP, but we were able to make good progress.
What did you think of the research process?
I really enjoyed the research that I did in Dr. Lear’s lab. One thing I quickly came to realize, however, was that research does not always produce the results we want the first time around. It took Alexander Graham Bell, of course, thousands of attempts to perfect the telephone, but only after taking part in research did I come to understand how frustrating it is when things don’t go well. There were a few occasions where some of our procedures simply failed, and we had to redo the experiments completely.
On the other hand, though, when things did go well, it was extremely satisfying, and it validated my efforts as a researcher. Over the course of the program, I made several mistakes, but these mistakes helped shape my understanding of standard laboratory procedures. SSTP was my first real experience doing lab work; I had previously interned at another lab in the University of Iowa, but because I was too young, I could not perform any experiments.
Recently, your research area made world news with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for “discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm” of the fruit fly. When and how did you first hear the news?
I am interested in developments in medicine, so when it came time for the Nobel Prize announcements, I was curious to see what research was given the Nobel Prize in Medicine. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was given to circadian rhythm biologists that worked with fruit flies.
I felt even more proud of my research after the announcement. The research that I worked on during SSTP is definitely related to that of the Nobel Prize winners’, and it aims to build off of the base of knowledge that they created. I was also glad to see these researchers being recognized because work on circadian rhythms does not receive much attention in mass media compared to other fields of study in medicine, despite its importance.
How was it working with your mentor, Dr. Lear?
I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with Dr. Lear, as well as Xinguo Lu, the graduate student who worked with me, and Stephanie Haase and Jessica Draus, the other graduate students in Dr. Lear’s lab. All of them were very patient with me, they answered my questions, and they explained the concepts clearly. There were definitely times when I was in over my head, but I always had someone to ask for help.
Since I live in Iowa City, I’ve been lucky enough to continue my connection with Dr. Lear. I have spoken to her about updates to the project, and I intend to revisit the lab soon.
You’ve clearly got a bright future ahead of you. Where do you want to go with your future research?
I appreciate the kind words. I am currently interested in pursuing a pre-med track in college. I hope to continue working in labs in college, since I think it will benefit me greatly when I become a doctor.
Do you have any word of advice for future SSTP applicants?
SSTP strengthened me as a student of science, but also as a person (as I had to live away from my parents and be more responsible). For future SSTP participants, I have the following advice: Ask your mentor/graduate students lots of questions, and don’t ever feel like you are annoying them; learn from your mistakes; make lots of friends; don’t spend all your time doing research (remember to have fun!); read lots of papers related to your research; and most importantly, have confidence in yourself and believe that you can complete the project.
I would also advise anyone that is even slightly interested in research, be it in math, science, or computer science, to apply for SSTP. Make sure you show your passion for science in the essays, because they are a major part of the application process.