Timing is everything
“Congratulations on the acceptance of your manuscript.”
It was strange to read this, since the project almost never happened.
Two years and seven months earlier, only sunlight illuminated the dim, silent hallway and adjoining quiet lab spaces. I hastened down the hall, slowing only to glance at flyers advertising seminars from March 2020. A month outdated, they were a relic from the time before COVID-19 froze academic life, despite the initial drumbeat of “We will remain open.”
As the stem cell center’s director, I’d become what the university termed an “essential worker,” tasked with minding the center’s frozen cell bank. While checking the cryogenic tank, I glanced at Ashlynn’s empty desk.
When could undergrads return to the labs?
Ashlynn was an impressive undergraduate assistant; we wanted to start a research project. It would use human induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs — the center’s specialty — to investigate whether the extracellular matrix impacts cardiomyocyte differentiation.
Like many labs, we were pivoting. We were thrilled that Ashlynn’s summer research proposal had been approved but chose to delay funding until fall 2020.
Then what to do over the summer?
We decided a remote literature review project would be best, helping prepare Ashlynn for bench research in the fall. “This is going to be an incredible learning experience for me,” Ashlynn raved.
With few funding options as a director, I was grateful for departmental professional development funds for her stipend.
Over the summer, Ashlynn made great progress on the literature review. We met twice a week via Zoom and exchanged many emails to discuss papers and flesh out the manuscript. At the summer’s end, we passed the manuscript torch to another undergraduate researcher, Tessa.
Ashlynn meanwhile attended one of the center’s iPSC training workshops and then dug into her research in the lab that fall. Armed with a protocol we reviewed remotely, she finally tried the differentiation.
I remember going into the lab, excited to check on her cells. Carefully taking the plate from the incubator, I set it on the microscope and searched for cells. My heart may have skipped a beat when I saw Ashlynn’s cardiac cells contracting. She had successfully executed the protocol, on her own, on her first try.
By April 2021, research was mostly back to normal, but now our clock was ticking. After two years as the center’s founding director, I was ready for new career adventures, but Ashlynn’s project was unfinished.
How much data could we get before I left? Would it be enough?
We selected extracellular matrix proteins and planned out our best-shot experiment.
And it worked. Sitting with Ashlynn in the center’s dark, cozy fluorescence microscopy room, I gave her a crash course on collecting images. She continued collecting images after I left that day. With those and her detailed notes, it would have to be enough — and amazingly, it was.
Ashlynn graduated in spring 2022 with an honors thesis built upon these experiments. That fall, we wrapped up the literature review, including Ashlynn’s data, and after peer review, it was published.
I was honored that, despite a pandemic, I published with an undergraduate listed as first author.
(The manuscript Teisha Rowland writes about here with multiple undergraduate co-authors was published in the journal Bioengineering.)
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