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Students assist with research on campus

By Polina Potochevska

Section: Features

November 17, 2017

Brandeis is known for its high level research, among many other things. Students at Brandeis can get involved in research even from their first year, both as a stepping stone towards their future careers and also as a unique eye-opening experience.

Keren Khromchenko ’19, a biology major, works a research assistant to a Ph.D. student studying the Rem2 gene in the brain and its association with learning. She has been an assistant there since her sophomore year. Khromchenko was looking for lab work but “didn’t know where to start.” After taking biology lab her sophomore year, the TA in the class reached out to her over email to ask if she would like to participate in the project.

As an assistant in the lab, Khromchenko makes genomic DNA, or gDNA, and starts the biological process to sequence it. She also makes gels that reveal the bands and help researchers see the size of the DNA sequence.

The lab is testing for the specific Rem2 gene in mice, so Khromchenko has gained experience in working with animals, running behavioral tests and also dissection. Her work at the lab “helps save [the Ph.D. student’s] time, but teaches me how to use certain techniques,” she explained.

Khromchenko’s favorite part about being a research assistant is the opportunity to “practice different techniques and get better at them, it’s a great feeling when it works!” She also explained that while she does make mistakes sometimes, she always learns from them and improves her skills every day. And while it may be hard sometimes to find the time to squeeze in four or five one-hour-minimum shifts a week, she explains the lab is accommodating and if she is stressed with homework or a midterm she can rearrange her hours.

Khromchenko hopes to attend medical school and become a physician after graduating from Brandeis, and hopes her technical skills will be vital to her career. “Having connections with people and being able to talk about the experience [of doing research] is really helpful,” she mentioned.

The skills she has acquired from scientific research include the techniques she originally learned in biology lab but was able to bring to a real world application, working in collaboration with other people and learning to work with animals and different biological materials as well.

She advised students looking to get research assistantships on campus to make connections with their TAs since “they’re there to help you, and you never know if they’re looking for people to help them with their projects.” Another key piece of advice would be to “use your resources” by reaching out to professors and doing your own research on the internet to find out the types of research going on in the labs to see which you’d like to participate in. “I think I got lucky,” Khromchenko said of her experience getting the position.

Alexander Feldman ’19 is a computer science major and a research assistant for the National Initiative on Gender, Culture and Leadership in Medicine at the Women’s Studies Research Center, also known as C-Change.

Feldman first found out about the position on the Brandeis job portal his first year. He originally wanted to apply for a position with the BranVan, but the research position caught his eye and a day after applying, he was given an interview.

He works about eight hours a week at the center, and after his first year he stayed in Waltham for the summer and worked at C-Change part-time. C-Change creates surveys of medical schools to get “information about the quality of life issues for the faculty and students and residents. They’re looking at things like vitality… work/life balance, gender equity or all the other things that are basically big problems in academic medicine and the way that medicine is taught, and trying to come up with rigorous ways to evaluate them and also initiate change,” Feldman explained.

On a day to day basis, Feldman helps process survey results. “It’s kind of a bunch of office work, like making documents and copies.” However, he said it does get more high-level. This past week, Feldman was featured as an author on one of C-Change’s posters, which he said was “very cool” considering it was his first time being an author on a publication.

Although Feldman is a computer science major, he says that his position at C-Change is helpful for him. “I do care about the topic, that medical education is done well. It’s useful to have a different background, and computer science is always useful, I think… I’m able to create lists or I can code some survey stuff, like data analysis. A lot of Excel work, which I like, too,” Feldman said of his usual work as an assistant.

In addition to using his experience in computer science, Feldman has also learned new skills like how an office is managed, file and record keeping, and learning how to follow up with people and behave professionally in a work space. While he explained that the group is on the smaller side, it collaborates with other universities and sending out many surveys. “It’s interesting to see how it grows and changes and how the image they put out is able to grow and evolve.”

Feldman’s favorite part about being a research assistant at C-Change is having something “outside of the regular circle.” He said that he’s met a wide variety of people and appreciates having something to do on campus “that is uniquely mine and not related to class.”

“Being in contact with large organizations and seeing how those relationships are maintained is pretty important,” Feldman said of the connection that his position as a research assistant would make on his future careers. While he is not leaning towards working in research as much as he used to, the skills he learned from C-Change are still relevant for many possible job options.

Feldman’s advice for students wanting to work as an assistant would be to “genuinely care about the goals of the group,” and be focused on the big picture “even if you’re doing menial stuff” because it’ll be in support of that goal, and also it shows to the people who are in higher positions that you care about the project and it may even help you advance into a higher role.

There are a lot of different research opportunities at Brandeis, both for students who want to do research as a way to propel them into the professional world where they hope to work, or as a fulfilling job and new experience that will give them professional skills once they graduate. Both Khromchenko and Feldman found their research assistant positions in various ways and do different types of work, but both appreciate the skills it has taught them and will continue to teach them throughout their time at Brandeis.

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