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Danielle Liu

Class of 2020
Major: Biomedical Engineering

Photo of Danielle LiuWhen Danielle Liu arrived on-campus as a first-year student, she kept hearing one word over and over: research.  It had become a buzzword around campus and was mentioned frequently during orientation sessions for engineering majors.  Despite the many references to research, Danielle still wasn’t sure exactly what ‘research’ meant.  What did research look like?  What kinds were there?  Would she like it?  While Danielle was not sure about the answers to these questions, she know that she wanted to try her hand at research.  Through her research experience in the Advanced Therapeutics Laboratory investigating innovative ways to utilize nanoparticles to optimize pharmaceutical delivery, Danielle realized that research is best defined by doing.

Danielle began searching for opportunities with some basic searches for Vanderbilt engineering labs.  She candidly shared, “I tried to read about what the different labs were doing and what their goals were but, honestly, I could not understand the research descriptions on the lab websites.  I didn’t have the background knowledge yet, especially in biology!”  Though she felt very intimidated by her own limited engineering background, Danielle didn’t let this stop her from taking the next step.  She emailed several different faculty members in the Biomedical Engineering department whose research looked interesting.  One faculty member responded to her inquiry, and Danielle was working in a research lab before she knew it.

When Danielle started in the Duvall lab, she remembers that she was totally overwhelmed with the new techniques and terminology.  Adjusting to a new work environment can be challenging, especially as a first year student, but Danielle found an exceptional support network through SyBBURE, the Searle Undergraduate Research Program.  SyBBURE is a program that provides individualized mentorship and training to undergraduate students while they pursue research opportunities.  Through weekly meetings with peers and a graduate or post-doctoral mentor, students share about their research experiences, troubleshoot difficulties they may be encountering in the lab, and develop community with one another.

Danielle credits SyBBURE and a supportive graduate mentor in her lab with helping her to persist when her confidence faltered as she was getting oriented to lab work.   She remembered the first difficult situation that she encountered in the lab, “I made a gel explode in the microwave and I was totally embarrassed.  I thought that the other lab members resented me or were frustrated with my inexperience.”  Danielle shared that through insight given through her SyBBURE and lab mentors, she learned that these kinds of mishaps are common when starting and that most had been in that position before.

Despite the challenging beginnings, Danielle remained on-campus during the summers to work in the lab, thanks to SyBBURE’s support. She shared that this was a “turning point” for her as it allowed her to gain confidence in her own skills in the lab but also helped her to learn how valuable failure is in science and in many disciplines.  Danielle reflected, “80% of what you do in a lab is not research that you can share with others, which is hard to take in and understand but when you recognize that ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn and grow, that is where the good stuff happens.  Failure bonds scientists together!”

Danielle plans to take her passion for research into her life after graduation by pursuing an MD/PhD degree.  She always knew that she wanted to care for others as a physician but her time in SyBBURE and working in the lab has shown her the value of approaching problems creatively as a scientist.  Danielle also mentioned the necessity of research on effective patient treatments and outcomes, “I can’t imagine not having the research to figure out questions that I have about patients and their diagnoses.”  She hopes that dual-training as a physician-scientist will allow her to balance providing direct patient care with making contributions to literature which optimizes outcomes for the broader public.

Danielle feels that every student at Vanderbilt should be involved in some kind of research as it builds perseverance, confidence, and an ability to think creatively about problems and solutions.  Not sure where to start finding research opportunities?  Danielle offered a few suggestions:

  • Check out SIM. They are a student organization that hosts match days for labs and prospective student workers.  Not all labs are represented but it can be a great starting point!
  • Meet with your professors. Reach out to faculty members who are doing research that is of interest to you.  It is good to be honest about your comfort level and skills; they do not expect you to know everything.  Professors are looking for students who have a desire to learn!
  • Look into applying to VUSRP (Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research Program) or VUSE (Vanderbilt University School of Engineering Summer Research Program). These are summer research programs that give you a stipend to do research over the summer with a Vanderbilt faculty member.