Getting Comfortable with Roadblocks: Students Tackle the Problem-Solving Inherent to Scientific Research During the Glaxo Summer Research Program

Pelagia Martin, from Emerald Isle, North Carolina, is studying the epigenetics of situational depression, which is the way behaviors and environmental factors affect the expression of an organism’s genes.

“I learned about epigenetics earlier this year and immediately thought of how that could play into things like generational trauma and how life experiences can affect not only your physical health but also potentially your children’s physical health,” the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics student said.

Martin studied generational depression in C. elegans worms by the movement of the worms through multiple generations in the Research in Biology academic year course and in an intensive three-week lab experience called the Glaxo Summer Research Program. 

During their junior year at NCSSM, research students learn to understand research papers and develop ideas for topics they are passionate about studying. Then during the Summer Program, they travel back to campus as part of the Summer Research & Innovation Program to work full time in the biology lab, gathering data and getting hands-on research experience. 

“With a lot of molecular genetics, you can follow the procedure perfectly and do everything right, and it still does not work,” Martin said. “So the hardest part is having to repeat things over and over and over again and not know if it’s going to work or not. You have to tell yourself that you have to keep going, and eventually it will work. For me, it eventually did work, but it was hard to keep running these worm generations and just blindly hope that maybe it will work.” 

Students delve into a wide range of topics including attempting to change mutation rates in genes and studying how gravity affects polymers and plant structure. These students are grappling with professional research questions, even as many of them find themselves in a lab for the first time. 

“I am always continually impressed by what they are able to produce,” said Instructor of Biology Dr. Heather Mallory, who leads the program alongside Biology Instructor Dr. Kim Monahan. 

“The hope is that by the end of the three weeks, they might have some data for their projects,” said Mallory.  “But really they’ve done the troubleshooting and so they’ve come across roadblocks. They’ve learned to problem-solve around them, and they are getting really comfortable doing the things they need to do in order to collect their data.” 

Mallory says this process is as important as the research itself because it allows students to reach out of their comfort zones, collaborate, and truly learn applied science. 

“This is really hard,” she said. “You can think about how something is going to work and it seems simple. Then you get into the lab and realize, ‘Wow, this is taking a lot longer than I ever thought.’ “Watching the students problem-solve through that and come out on the other side with something is a success. It’s the growth from ‘what is science and theory’ to ‘what is science applied.’” 

Mallory says that frustration and failure turn lab work into a valuable and meaningful experience. “One of my favorite things is watching the students support each other and work through issues together,” she said. “They realize that science doesn’t care if you did the procedure perfectly or how great your idea is.They’re really willing to help each other in little ways, like, ‘Oh, I tried it this way and it didn’t work, so you might want to try this.’ Helping each other across those roadblocks. That kind of shared experience is really important.” 

Makena Neale, from Davidson, North Carolina, is working to create a potential early detection method for pancreatic cancer using a biological marker with C. elegans. 

Neale says that with a project of this complexity, she knew she had to embrace the potential that it would be difficult. “It’s more just coping and recognizing the fact that I just have to keep trying,” she said. “It’s a lot of problem-solving, which I love doing, and I’m learning new techniques for that in general. It’s a field I want to go into in the future, so it’s giving me a good base for that.” 

“You have to be able to fail,” said Neale. “Otherwise, you’re not going to learn anything in this program. The entire idea behind it is once you fail you can try again and you can succeed…It’s a really, really great experience, and you’re going to get a lot out of it in general.” 

Mallory says that what makes it all work is the students’ passion for their projects. “The big thing is how much they do their own work,” she said. “I don’t come up with any of these ideas, it’s all student-generated work…this is college level. I think that’s a really cool aspect of this program: it’s what they want to do, what they want to pursue.” 

“It’s okay to fail, and learn from your failures,” said Clara Smith from Cornelius, North Carolina, who is studying apoptotic responses in C. elegans that could be used in a novel approach as an alternative to chemotherapy. “Partake in something you are passionate about, something you find joy in and will find fulfillment in every day. You’re going to be doing it every day, so why not do something that you love instead of just doing something to show it off to someone else?” 

“I’m so happy and joyful that I have so many of these incredible opportunities in front of me every day through this research program,” Smith said. “I look around every day and can’t believe I’m here. I couldn’t imagine spending high school anywhere else.” 

Mallory also thanked Glaxo for making the biology summer research program possible. “Glaxo has given us very generous funding that has supported these projects,” she said. “It really is our really incredible donors and founders that make this possible. We’re able to do this level of work on our campus. I feel very lucky that I get to teach this course and do this program. It’s unique, and it’s fantastic.” 

Learn more about the Glaxo Summer Research Program

See the 2022 Glaxo Summer Research Program showcase