What’s it Like Doing a 6-Credit Research Assistantship at DIS?

Sarah, Wheaton College, and Nicole, Saint Olaf College, did research at DIS Stockholm this semester. They worked with Dr. Rebecca Howard of Stockholm University on the research project ‘Biochemistry-Biophysics of Ion Channels,’ which looks at how drugs affect electrical signaling in the brain. Their 6-Credit Research Assistantship is based in the Molecular Biophysics Stockholm group at the Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab).

We talked with Sarah and Nicole about why they decided to pursue research abroad and what they learned from the experience:

DIS: Why did you decide to pursue research this semester?

Sarah K.: Coming into this semester I was looking for a new experience outside of just taking regular classes while abroad and I thought it would be really cool to see how research is conducted outside of the US. I learn much better doing hands on projects, so I also knew that I would get more out of my semester if I part took in something like this. I am also interested in molecular physiology and drug development so the focus of the research project sounded like something I really wanted to be a part of.

Nicole S.: I decided to pursue research this semester because I am considering a career as a researcher and I wanted to get an idea of what that would be like. I specifically chose to do research while abroad because I wanted to see what a lab in another country is like compared to the United States. I also knew that this lab is much larger and has a lot more resources than the small liberal arts school I go to, so I knew this opportunity would be vastly different from anything I could do at my own school.

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Nicole with her research mentor and DIS faculty, Reba Howard

DIS: How did you find out about the Research Assistant positions at DIS?

SK: When I was looking for study abroad programs, I focused on ones that offered experiences outside of normal classes. When I saw that DIS offered a 6-credit research opportunity at the Science for Life Lab, I decided that this research opportunity would be my main priority for the semester if I got into DIS. I got in contact with the research department and was able to gain all the information I needed on what the position would be like. After interviewing and getting the position, I kept in close contact with my research mentor and she helped me understand the extent of the position and any expectations for the semester.

NS: I think I found out about the research assistant position through a study abroad advisor at my school. I had asked what study abroad opportunities there were in the sciences and told them I really wanted some research experience, and they told me about the many research opportunities at DIS. I did some more digging on the DIS website as well as SciLifeLab’s website and decided it would be a good fit.

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Sarah and Nicole with the research team

DIS: What is it like to work at SciLifeLab at Stockholm University?

SK: Working at SciLifeLab has been one of the best experiences while studying in Stockholm. It’s not just being in the lab that I’ve enjoyed but also getting to know the people in the lab and making friends outside of DIS. The lab is full of people that come from all over the world, so everyone speaks English. I’ve learned so much about other cultures by working with these people and getting to know them over the course of the semester. Everyone at SciLifeLab is really friendly and enthusiastic about students and bringing new people in.

NS: Working at SciLifeLabs is great! I love being surrounded by people who are passionate about what they do all the time. I am always amazed about how much some of the more senior researchers know! I have learned so much from everyone. I also enjoy the mix of people I get to work with; in our lab alone there is someone from Estonia, Slovenia, and Italy, as well as Sweden and the U.S.

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DIS: What skills have you gained from this opportunity?

SK: Honestly there’s so much I’ve learned from this semester in the lab it’s hard to summarize. First of all, I’ve learned a lot about biophysics and developed my skills in biotechnology and multiple different lab methods. I’ve learned how to problem solve on my own and troubleshoot when something wasn’t working. I’ve gained a lot of interdisciplinary skills, as the lab has a lot of different types of researchers ranging from those that work in the wet lab to the more computational side of things but you can’t do one without the other. I’ve also learned a lot of patience and that if something works on the first try you either did it wrong or you are the luckiest person in the lab.

NS: Well, I have learned a ton of new lab techniques and skills. On top of that, I have also gained a lot of practice working both independently and collaboratively. In the lab, it is important to work independently so someone doesn’t have to be there telling you what to do all the time, but it is also important to know when you need help and ask for it. That’s another thing I’ve been working on this semester – not being afraid to ask questions. It can be intimidating to ask questions that might seem silly but everyone has always been happy to answer my questions.

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DIS: How has this research opportunity differed from projects at your home university?

SK: At my home university, projects were based on coming up with novel ideas with a partner that were separate from what anyone else was doing. The experiments were much simpler and limited by time and resources. At SciLifeLab, the experience is more unique because the project I am working on is building off of where the last person left off and will hopefully contribute to the next phase of the larger project that the entire lab is working on. The lab as a whole is working on a broad idea, and each individual person is working on a small piece of the puzzle that will continue to influence the next phase of each project. This is much different from the research I did at my home university because the project didn’t go any further than the class and it ended when the class ended. I know the work I’m doing at SciLifeLab will carry on over time.

NS: All of the research projects I have been a part of at my home school have been as a part of a class and have only lasted a few weeks to a couple months. The projects I’ve done were very small and almost always showed no significant results due to their short nature. This research opportunity has allowed me to spend much more time working on my project. And, since what I have done is only a small part of a larger project, I know that even if I don’t get some amazing result, what I have done will help someone with their future research.

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Sarah working with Reba

DIS: What is your advice for students considering doing research?

SK: If you want to be challenged in a way that no class could ever challenge you, I highly recommend doing research here. I feel as though I learned skills from working in the lab here that I wouldn’t have gained from taking a regular class load this semester. Learning hands-on and working one on one with a lab mentor is a whole different experience compared to being in a class lecture. It is definitely a time commitment throughout the week. But, since I am only taking two other classes along with it, the workload is very manageable and flexible. Being a research assistant hasn’t held me back at all from making friends at DIS, traveling, or taking part in other social events. If you are interested in a really unique study abroad experience I highly recommend checking out research at DIS!

NS: This research opportunity was definitely a major commitment and it wasn’t always easy. But, for the most part, it was fun and was definitely an invaluable learning opportunity. If you are interested in research, this is a great opportunity to see what it is like to work in a real lab and see the opportunities for research in another country!

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Sarah and Nicole presenting their research with Reba at the Semester Showcase

Are you interested in Sarah and Nicole’s research?

>> Learn more about their project

DIS offers several Research Assistantships every semester in fields of study across the liberal arts:

>> Check out research opportunities at DIS Stockholm

>> Check out research opportunities at DIS Copenhagen

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