Taking a Gap Year to Conduct Pediatric Cancer Research
I’ve always known that I wanted to go to medical school, but it was Hamilton that was responsible for solidifying my desire to pursue a career in the field of pediatric oncology. Hamilton provided a unique environment that allowed me to develop strong relationships with my science professors, and after a positive experience in a genetics course, I decided to do my senior thesis in a cancer-focused lab.
I was fascinated by how much space cancer research offered for intellectual growth, and I immediately fell in love with the independence and critical thinking that this field demanded. I had a great mentor who took the time to work through protocols with me, analyze data, and taught me how to interpret findings and ask bigger picture questions on my own. I was not yet aware of just how valuable these skills would be as I entered the real world.
It was the positive experience in my thesis lab that encouraged me to pursue a position as a research assistant at Dana Farber Cancer Institute (Dana Farber). I wanted to further explore the world of cancer research and address the millions of unanswered questions that define it before I embark on the long journey that will be medical school, and Dana Farber proved the perfect environment to do so.
When I was beginning the application process and browsed through the open positions that the institute had to offer, I was amazed at how many of the required skills overlapped with what I had learned in my lab at Hamilton. The mechanism that we sought to uncover in my thesis lab was largely similar to that of the overarching mechanism that defined my main project here at Dana Farber, and this was one of the determining factors in my being offered the position.
The reason that I received this interview at Dana Farber in the first place was because of the skill set that I had developed at Hamilton. The caliber of research that I was exposed to during my senior year made me a competitive applicant, opening so many doors for me here at Dana Farber, and I fully attribute my current success to the foundation that I built during my time as an undergraduate. I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience at Dana Farber, but I was warned by my thesis mentor about the horrors that can also define the world of research, which many undergraduates applying to such positions are unaware of. Science is difficult, and you have to be prepared to face failure and learn how to use it as an opportunity for reevaluation and academic growth instead of letting it define you.
Many students pursue positions in labs upon graduation to enhance their resumes or pass the time before starting medical school, not fully recognizing the realities of research. From my experience, it is absolutely crucial that you have a vested interest in your work, otherwise you’ll find it easy to become detached from the projects and won’t be eager to ask the next question.
Research translates into long hours, a great deal of independent work with little interaction, and frequent failures. It’s important that you inquire about the responsibilities that you’ll have upon joining a lab because there is significant variability. I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside a mentor who has given me a great deal of responsibility in contributing to our projects, and I am grateful for the active role that I’ve been able to play, making me the second author on our most recent publication. Yet, I’ve also witnessed others in the same position as myself quickly grow disengaged; knowing the expectations that your mentor will have of you before you commit to a research position is highly important to ensure that you get the most out of what these experiences have to offer.
There are definitely hard days, but when I’m reminded of the bigger picture ramifications that my work will have and the role that we’re playing in saving the future life of a child, I find that I can conquer any challenge thrown at me. I’ve had the privilege to learn from some of the top cancer scientists, and the amount of knowledge that I’ve taken away from this experience is truly invaluable.
It was at Hamilton where I first encountered the realm of cancer research, and this continues to be a defining moment for me because it was responsible for revealing to me my passion for this field. Hamilton taught me the necessity of a strong work ethic, independent thinking, and resilience attributes that I continue to apply to my research on a daily basis. Performing pediatric cancer research at Dana Farber, and having been given opportunities to shadow pediatric oncologists here in the clinic, have confirmed my desire to pursue this field, but none of this would have been possible without the preliminary exposure and mentorship that I received at Hamilton.
I witnessed firsthand that professors truly want the best for their students, so be eager to inquire and take advantage of any and all research opportunities, because, like me, you just may find that you want to continue with research as you enter medical school.
Taylor Arnoff ’17, a biochemistry/molecular biology major and a classical languages minor, is a research assistant at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. She works with Dr. William Hahn conducting pediatric cancer research in her gap years before starting medical school.