Seayoung Lee ‘22 recently received the competitive American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Undergraduate Scholar Award. As Lee continues her laboratory work over the summer in preparation for writing a senior thesis, we got the chance to interview her about this award and the undergraduate research experience at Duke.
Lee came to Duke already knowing she wanted to get involved with research in the biological sciences, but it wasn’t until she took a Writing 101 class, Science and Medicine, that she discovered the field of immunotherapy and the wide range of applications the field offers. After the course ended, she emailed several immunotherapy labs, asking if they had room for a motivated undergraduate. The Cell Death Lab in the Duke University School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery said sure—come on in for an interview.
The lab offered Lee an independent study position, but she didn’t quite know what to expect from the independent study, or the lab in general. That’s her first tip for other undergraduates looking to get involved in research: ask as many questions as you can think of, so you know what you can expect, and what the lab expects of you.
Lee’s work in the lab centers around inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). She said aside from her general scientific curiosity around medicine and immunology, this work is particularly fulfilling because of her own family members’ experiences with cancer. Working on women’s health specifically is important to Lee because of the historic issues surrounding women’s health research.
The mentorship aspect of lab work was invaluable for Lee, and she said she felt fortunate to work with a postdoctoral fellow for an entire year. But after this fellow left the lab, she was mostly on her own and expected to work independently. This newfound independence brought Lee a stronger sense of her own strengths and abilities in the lab, but it also forced her to learn important skills for research, like how to communicate effectively and collaborate with the PI of the lab.
This brings us to the two most important skills that undergraduate researchers must be willing to develop: self-advocacy and communication. The ability to speak up for yourself when things aren’t going right on a project (and even when they are!) is an invaluable skill for a young researcher to gain. Going along with this, learning to ask questions that clarify your own project is necessary, but also asking questions that introduce you to new topics is important because it often deepens your understanding of your own work and its broader context.
Lee also carved out an opportunity to understand the context of her work during the COVID-19 shutdowns. While at home, she couldn’t continue to perform experiments in the lab, so her PI gave her articles to read that helped her to understand the field more broadly. During this time, Lee began to understand the importance of taking the time out of the lab to read. Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re progressing on your own projects, this reading strengthens your understanding of methods and context, which is imperative for doing good research.
As for the AACR Undergraduate Scholar Award, Lee was happily surprised to be chosen, given the competitive nature of the award. Part of the award entails attending the AACR Annual Meeting for two years. The 2021 meeting was held in a virtual format. Although she missed the opportunity to travel and meet her peers in person, she said the virtual conference was a bit of a blessing. She could match her work schedule at the lab around which talks she wanted to attend most, and then watch the recorded sessions for those she couldn’t fit into the day, or sessions that ran concurrently. Even more importantly, she felt honored to have the opportunity to share her work with the community and engage with a community of other scholars focused on cancer research.
Looking ahead, Lee is working on projects to go towards writing a senior thesis this upcoming year. After graduation, she plans to take a gap year and work in a research lab before applying to medical school. She knows that regardless of where her future takes her, lab research will play a large role in her life.