Guest Blog: Life in the Lab

group of people standing in lab wearing coats and protective glasses
group of people standing in lab wearing coats and protective glasses
woman in white lab coat adjusting a device
Teamwork makes the dream work — and engineering, too.

Carolynn Que, biomedical engineering graduate student, explains how one hallway conversation changed her career.

Upon entering my senior year of undergrad, I assessed my life, my attributes, my flaws and tried to figure out how I could sell myself to a company.

I soon realized I did not look desirable on paper: My GPA was painfully average, I had no co-op or internship experience and I had a pile of student debt. I had to make myself stand out among the crowd, but I was limited by options and time.

I saw an opportunity when my course instructor for Micro- and Nanotechnologies took us on a tour of her lab. The lab was small, but she was proud of it, and I was keenly interested in what she was working on. I told myself that the next day in class, I would ask to join her research group.

I chickened out for two months. Then I happened to run into her in the hallway one day. It was just the two of us and I mustered some courage, counted to three and blurted out the question. I flushed immediately thinking about how clumsy it sounded and patiently awaited her refusal. To my surprise, it never came. Instead she casually agreed to meet with me to discuss a potential project. My first thoughts were that she must be mistaking me with someone else; I had two classes with her and she had to know I’m not at the top of my class. I think she did know but she gave me a chance — and I haven’t looked back since.

woman in white lab coat adjusting a device
Carolynn Que is a graduate student working in the Biomedical MicroDevices Lab. 

I have been working with Dr. Smitha Rao in the Biomedical MicroDevices lab since January 2018. After jumping through the necessary hoops and following all protocols to become certified to work in the lab, I found myself responsible for creating polymer solutions using various combinations of solvents and polymers such as polycaprolactone (PCL), polyvinylidene (PVDF) and polyaniline (PANI).

Using these solutions, I fabricate nanofibers using a method known as electrospinning. I change the morphologies of the nanofibers by playing around with the voltage and other parameters. I use these nanofibers as scaffolds, seed cells onto them and monitor cell proliferation and growth, which tells me how the cells behave on the scaffolds and helps me figure out ideal wound dressing parameters. The end goal is that one day this technology will expedite the healing process of diabetic foot ulcers or burn wounds.

green strands and blue dots in a microscopic image
Fluorescence illuminates the structure of nanoscaffolds used to grow cell cultures. 

While characterizing the fibers, I have learned how to use several facilities and devices. This includes a dynamic mechanical analysis (DMA) machine for tensile testing in a temperature-controlled environment, a field emission scanning electron microscope (FESEM) used in nanoscale imaging, ultraviolet-visible and Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy for compositional analysis, brightfield and fluorescent imaging. Not to mention the cell culture experience I gained working with several cell lines from cardio myoblasts and adult human fibroblasts to breast epithelial cells of varying malignancies.

The work I do in the lab builds on coursework. Working in the lab helped me understand my coursework better because I could relate it to real-life applications. 

And I’m a published author. I am a co-author on a paper published in Materialia and expecting to be lead author on a second paper by the end of summer. 

Working in the lab has taught me how to use my resources to solve real problems in need of real solutions, whether it be via poring over existing literature or seeking the knowledge of peers and faculty. It is okay not to know everything, but lab work gave me the confidence to learn and better myself daily. It has also taught me to accept outcomes and results as they are — I may not like them, I may not have expected them, but things are what they are, and I will find a use for them or modify experiments to achieve better outcomes. Working in the lab restored my confidence in myself and helped me realize GPA is just a number. It’s something I would highly recommend to any student.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.