Class of 2021
Major: Molecular and Cellular Biology
Mikayla Roof had always envisioned research as part of her college experience. After choosing to come to Vanderbilt because of the campus community and proximity to VUMC, Mikayla began looking into research opportunities before her first year even started. When contemplating what she wanted to study, Mikayla kept coming back to one thing: Parkinson’s disease. She explained, “My grandfather was diagnosed in 2011 with Parkinson’s Disease after his older two brothers had already passed away from it. The particular complexity of my family’s history had always made me desire to gain a better understanding of the disease. This ultimately made me passionate about spending my undergraduate career contributing to the efforts that bring answers to families experiencing similar situations and reducing the debilitating effects of the devastating disease.”
Mikayla’s research began with one Google search: “Parkinson’s research at Vanderbilt University.” She found Dr. Charles and Dr. Hacker at VUMC who were looking for students to mentor. Their website contained information about what they were looking for in research assistants. Mikayla knew that she wanted to participate in clinical research like that being done by the VUMC physicians on Parkinson’s. She wanted to ask questions that apply directly to patients. Accordingly, Mikayla emailed the professors with her resume and a letter of interest. She was thrilled to hear back and be offered an interview with the physicians.
Reflecting back to her first days at the lab, Mikayla reported feeling slightly intimidated. She had never done research before and had no prior experience in the field. Mikayla remembered feeling “overwhelmed and just getting thrown into it,” needing to navigate a fast learning curve in this novel environment. The lab had a short-term project on headaches and the effects of Botox, so Mikayla’s first task involved background reading of existing literature and writing a proposal that ultimately didn’t come to fruition. The lab decided not to pursue the project further and Mikayla credits this as the moment that she realized that “everything done in research is significant, even if it doesn’t seem like it.” The project taught her the process behind research and that it doesn’t always turn out as hoped for, but it is always a worthwhile learning process for all who are involved.
Returning to the lab in January, the physicians had a new project: investigating an idea about a particular genetic variation and how it affected exercise treatment in Parkinson’s patients. Mikayla set to work synthesizing existing research and findings that educated her about the topic of interest and allowed her to develop the hypotheses and overall research proposal. The lab had a data set from an ongoing observational study at the medical center and was able to conduct a sub-study on patients who fit the criteria. Mikayla’s daily work includes writing proposals or a write-up of the study just conducted, analyzing trends in data, and collaborating with other faculty who help build appropriate statistical models.
In April, with the support of her mentors, Mikayla submitted an abstract to the American Neurological Association. Her abstract was accepted and she was notified over the summer that it had been selected for a poster presentation at the annual conference. The conference took place in Atlanta in October 2018 and, thanks to support from VUMC and a travel award she had won from the association, Mikayla was in attendance as a poster presenter. The majority of attendees were physicians or research scientists and very few undergraduate students participated. While she initially felt intimidated, Mikayla shared that “as I started to talk about the project we had put so much effort into and I was very passionate about, a lot of the nerves went away.” She was able to field questions from the professional physicians and networked with people from around the world. The poster was even selected as one of the top 20 posters of the entire conference!
Mikayla recognizes that the opportunity to present at a national professional conference as a second-year undergraduate student is an honor and she is appreciative of the personal growth that her research experience has given her. She reflected, “Being able to work with and collaborate with people at various professional levels, the opportunities to grow, and experiencing the true life of a research scientist are the best parts of research.”
Mikayla offers that the first step to finding research opportunities is often for students to identify a research topic or area that they are interested in and reach out to relevant faculty and graduate students. Many students may feel intimidated by this, or feel that they do not have enough relevant experience or skills, but Mikayla shared that “many professors prefer to train younger students so they can develop skills over a longer period of time.” She also advocates for students to reach out to upper class students who are currently involved in research who can act as mentors or support through the process of finding a lab.
Mikayla encourages students to get involved with research opportunities on campus and is willing to provide advice and insight for students pursuing clinical research experience.