Reflections from The Undergraduate Research Engagement Course

By: Sydney Penner, undergraduate student in Psychology at Simon Fraser University

When I began working as a research assistant in February 2021, I couldn’t have predicted how far my journey with the lab would take me in such a short time.

As a third-year student, I’d been feeling the pull to get involved in mental health research since my first year of study at SFU, but was unable to find an outlet that suited my interests. As a result, I ended up applying to just one lab: the B.R.A.I.N lab. Looking through the lab’s publications and projects while I put together my application was equal parts intriguing and daunting. It felt like the challenge I’d unwittingly been preparing for, for years.
My path in post-secondary education has been meandering and un-traditional, to say the least. I arrived at SFU as a transfer student, having completed three years of an undergrad degree in science. I’ve harboured a long-term desire to work in the field of medicine and completing a Bachelor of Science degree seemed like the logical fit at the time. Concurrent to my coursework in biology, I volunteered in a genetics lab — counting fruit flies under microscopes and working on polymerase chain reactions with plant viruses. The work was decidedly less satisfying than expected and left me discouraged, wondering: are all research labs like this?

Having worked with the B.R.A.I.N. lab for a little over a year now, I can answer that question with a resounding “no”. Human psychological research is an all-encompassing experience. It’s frustrating and contrary, rewarding, meaningful and a whole host of other descriptors at once. It’s a discipline wherein its process looks so different from the tidy publications that are its products. Every facet of research, from developing a question to ethics applications to data cleaning and analyses, brings its unique deck of cards to the table. Each requires separate knowledge, faces different challenges and achieves its own goals. Psychology research is one of the most nuanced places to find yourself in.

Working in a genetics lab as a research assistant, I was confined to my white coat and my fume hood and my tasks were relatively stagnant and rudimentary. The B.R.A.I.N. lab was anything but this experience. Within a month of collecting data at our clinical site, I applied to become a study lead for the ROAR Canada project and was granted the opportunity. Now I found myself embroiled in the world of study coordination: tracking supplies, liaising with health care staff, developing on-site protocols and leading a team of research assistants. The role transition went smoothly for me and allowed me to use the skills and knowledge that I’d built working in the administration sector for most of my life. Becoming a study lead also exposed me to so many other people connected to the lab who I hadn’t met or worked with before, including ethics personnel, masters’ students and patient care coordinators who all helped guide the integration of our research into our clinical sites. Much like they say it takes a village to raise a child, it became evident that it certainly takes a village to conduct research too.

Fast-forward several months into the summer, and I found myself evolving yet again at the lab. I was allowed to complete a directed study in circadian rhythms – a research project of my own. This facet of my role in research would prove itself to be the most difficult. It would also become the experience that I am the most thankful for. Before my time at the B.R.A.I.N. lab, my grades in university told me that I knew how to think critically, at least to some extent. Herein lies the great divide between learning and doing. To evaluate and poke holes in papers and theories in the classroom is one thing – to devise a novel research question is entirely another. I spent weeks preparing to discuss my initial question with my supervisor, gaining a sense of confidence in the direction I was heading based on the background literature review I’d compiled. But upon presenting my question, there were criticisms I wasn’t prepared to handle and a general lack of specificity around my question. For the first time at the lab, I felt on shaky ground. My population of interest was too broad and lacked rationale – I was lumping groups of individuals together who were starkly different. My definitions were equally vague. What did I mean by “changes in sleep rhythm” as my principal variable of measurement? The human rest-activity rhythm is intricate and complex, measured by countless components that all mean different things. My supervisor’s voice became an echo in my head: Developing a research question takes constant refining. It’s pulling out a single grain of sand and looking at it closely.

The questioning period of research, that initial stage that drives the rest of the process, exposed me to my naivety. I discovered that developing a question takes more time than you budget for. Better yet, the process often feels incomplete. It demands the ability to be self-critiquing – something not well put into practice in undergraduate coursework. I was required to step outside of dualistic thinking, where things are more definitively wrong or right, known or not known, and put into practice what it means to be relative. Perhaps most importantly, I learned to accept that my question wouldn’t be perfect. I couldn’t account for every single alternate explanation that may play a role in what I would observe in my data. Rather, I had to acquire knowledge about which explanations were most relevant. Taking on a directed study was and continues to be a test of strength in all ways: academically, professionally and personally.

Acknowledging challenge in anything is important, but it’s equally important to acknowledge and have support. As a varsity athlete, I thrive in a team environment that prioritizes respect and open communication. Through the blend of roles that I’ve taken on at the lab and the uncharted territory that has resulted from that, I have never felt abandoned or alone. Instead, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside incredible individuals at the peer and mentorship levels, many of whom I now call friends. I’ve enjoyed late-night zoom calls and impromptu meetings on-site where we bounced ideas off of each other, found creative solutions to problems and celebrated hard-earned successes with ROAR’s study progress.
Successfully managing a growing team of research assistants working on ROAR is a part of my job at the lab that I’m proud of. Together we’ve navigated data collection through COVID-19, the movement of our facility into a new space, and the constantly dynamic project that is the ROAR CANADA study. I’ve learned to walk the line between firmness and grace when handling interpersonal conflict and RA performance. I’ve learned that criticism is best received in the company of encouragement and that championing the people on your team means doing so in times of success and personal struggle. Research assistants, much like the participants they work with, come from all walks of life. They face barriers, be those financial, social, emotional or health-related, and to support them through hardship, we must recognize that honour is a two-way street. It is an honour to work as a research assistant in the B.R.A.I.N. lab, but we should also be honoured to have the wealth of talent, knowledge and hard work that our research assistants bring us.

The B.R.A.I.N. lab’s team reflects a diverse group of people and together the breadth of our lived experiences is our greatest asset. Unlike the majority of university psychology labs that use undergraduate students as their population of interest, our studies work with a vulnerable and often marginalized clinical population. ROAR in particular a study looks deeply at the lives of individuals with concurrent disorders. Working on such a project has been incredibly enlightening. A disconnect between the learning environment and the practical environment exists in most disciplines, and the lab provided a unique opportunity for me to gain exposure to the clinical atmosphere. In doing so, I’ve gleaned insight into the dynamics of the patient-researcher relationship. Engaging someone in a conversation or survey about their personal history can bring about painful, triggering and/or traumatic memories. Sitting on the other side of that, data collection on ROAR taps into your humanity. You learn that all people are complicated, neither good nor bad but somewhere in between. You learn that joy and pain are pinnacles of the human experience and that marginalized people are not exempt from feeling either, or any emotion in between. You learn that mental and substance use disorders are intricate — their impact on one’s life is much more extensive than what meets the eye. As someone who hopes to one day work in clinical practice as a physician, working with our participants and observing how my colleagues interact with them has taught me a lesson of great value: being in research shouldn’t remove your ability to empathize or relate, nor does it need to. We must strive to maintain an appropriate and ethical boundary in our relationships with research participants, but doing so doesn’t need to reduce us to the robotic archetype of the scientist or the researcher. It isn’t easy to walk in both of these worlds at once, but I now believe that the ability to do so is one mark of a great researcher or clinician. Perhaps above all else, this lesson I will carry with me in my journey to pursuing medicine.

To sum up, the depth of knowledge that I’ve acquired through my year at the B.R.A.I.N lab would require more than five pages of a reflection paper. The experience in its entirety has been holistic; rich with intellectual, leadership and interpersonal development. Most invaluable to me, being in research has made a profound impact on the way that I think about the world around me at large and the people who live in it.