Feature Stories Campus Events

Making the Leap to an R1 Institution A summer at UC San Diego gave Katie Volk '18 experience working in a big research environment

“The most fulfilling part of this entire experience has been the clarity I received regarding my future endeavors.”

Katie Volk ’18 spent the summer at UC San Diego.

Katie Volk ’18
Hometown: Lancaster, California
Major: Neuroscience
Minor: Art History

Q: Tell us a little bit about your summer opportunity:
As a second-summer HHMI fellow, I had an opportunity to conduct research at UC San Diego under Dr. Sasha Kauffman in the Department of Reproductive Medicine, studying the effects of stress on reproductive health; namely effects on neurons in the brain as well as levels of reproductive hormones throughout the body.

I am a two-year HHMI fellow, and my grant through that fellowship helped fund most of the summer in San Diego. In addition to that, I also applied for and received a Johnson Opportunity Grant this summer to further fund my travels to UCSD.

Q: What was your favorite aspect of that location?
My parents both grew up in San Diego, and I actually lived with my grandparents over the summer. I’ve always wanted to live there — it’s my absolute favorite city in the nation — so it was an incredible blessing to be in La Jolla for the summer. I would definitely say the ocean is my favorite part of San Diego. Spending afternoons at the beach after work was a regular venture, and the Pacific Ocean is so beautiful.

Q: What did an average day for you look like?
 I woke up at 7 a.m. to spend some quiet time before heading off to work in the lab around 9 (after finding parking over a mile away). Typically, tasks included running PCR gels, cutting mouse brains or handling/checking on mice in the vivarium. When there weren’t any new mouse pups to be checked, surgeries to be performed or brains to be cut, I spent the day shadowing a post-doc lab member or ran PCRs to determine the genotypes of our animals. After work, I typically went to the UCSD campus gym to do my W&L volleyball summer workout, then headed to the beach to relax before heading home for dinner and sleep.

Q: What part of your experience was the most rewarding and fulfilling?
The most fulfilling part of this entire experience has been the clarity I received regarding my future endeavors. While I knew summer in San Diego would be rewarding in itself simply because of my proximity to home and my love for this city, I wasn’t expecting to gain such assurance in knowing what direction I want to head post-graduation. In that way, this summer was unexpectedly rewarding in giving me the insight I needed as to which path to take next.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
The biggest challenge I faced in the lab was growing accustomed to handling the mice. There are some surgeries and techniques that initially made me uncomfortable to perform, so I definitely had to learn to move past the discomfort. Repeated practice and an embracing attitude toward this challenge were essential in overcoming my initial fear.

Q: Who served as a mentor to you this summer, and what did they teach you?
The lab manager, Ruby Parra, was an incredible mentor for me this summer. Although I got to shadow all of the post-doc members in the lab, Ruby was my primary mentor, walking me through every technique and protocol, teaching me surgeries and handling, etc. She is incredibly organized and her bubbly personality was such a joy to encounter every day. I learned so much from her in just 10 weeks.

Q: What have you learned at W&L that helped you in this endeavor, and what will you bring back to your life on campus?
At W&L, I learned basic research skills that were necessary for my time here at UCSD. Along with this, because of the more personal and intimate style of research at W&L and my ability to learn directly from my advisor, I came into UCSD with a full understanding of WHAT research is. For example, W&L research taught me to question and consider why we do certain techniques, to think about the questions research attempts to answer, and to ponder the meaning of the results research gives us. Without that background, I would be mindlessly performing research tasks at UCSD without grasping the purpose behind the research. I’m also extremely excited to bring back a new technique I learned over summer to my lab this year at school. I hope to apply this new technique to questions that I have regarding the research we’ve been conducting in Lexington.

Q: Did this experience impact your studies or future plans in any way?
This experience has more than solidified my desire to pursue a Ph.D. graduate program in neuroscience or neurobiology. While I entered summer with an open mind, unsure if I would enjoy research at a larger institution, this experience opened my eyes to a bigger research world, which I am excited to participate in. I plan to apply to Ph.D. programs this fall as a result of this incredible experience.

Q: Why is this kind of experience important to W&L students?
While research at W&L was indispensable to my initial interest in the area, this experience at UCSD allowed me an opportunity to engage in research on a larger scale. My work at W&L opened up the door for me to pursue research at another institution, and expanding into another lab is something I recommend that all students do, if possible.

Q: Describe your summer adventure in one word:
Refreshing.

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