Meet Mark

Mark Sullivan (Biological Sciences, BS ’13)
Summer Undergraduate Research Award
Project: “Rtf1, Rkr1, and Chl1 and DNA Transcription”
Current: PhD candidate, Biological Sciences, MIT

I participated in the OUR Summer Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) program in the summer after my junior year at Pitt. I am now a second year graduate student studying biology at MIT. As a PhD candidate, I spend most of my time working in a laboratory that studies the metabolism of cancer cells. It has long been known that cancer cells use nutrients differently than normal cells, and we hope to use those differences as a way to specifically target and kill cancer cells. I love getting to study such an exciting topic in an environment with many intelligent, motivated people, and I feel as if my early experiences in graduate school have been very positive.

My time spent in the SURA program was quite valuable in helping me prepare to be a successful graduate student. There is a learning curve involved in entering the world of research, as you must become comfortable with an entirely new set of terminology and techniques specific to your field. As an undergraduate new to research, this can be very daunting. However, I found that my experiences in the summer research program helped me become more comfortable in this environment.

Everyone feels the fear that they will be judged harshly for not understanding something or for making a mistake in the research environment. By doing research as an undergraduate while surrounded by a group of other students in the OUR program, I began to realize that everyone makes mistakes and has basic misunderstandings. This helped me to develop the most critical skill for being a successful researcher, which is to be unafraid to ask questions, no matter how trivial or embarrassing they may seem. In truth, asking those questions is vitally important for you to have success as a researcher. Not only that, but by asking questions, you demonstrate a genuine interest in your research that I have found is usually appreciated by mentors.

The SURA program provided me with a group of peers that were going through the same struggles of adjusting to their research environment, and they were a valuable resource in reassuring myself that everyone experiences similar difficulties at some point.

The SURA program also provided me with a great opportunity to hone my ability to communicate my research with others. As a graduate student, I am often asked to present my research in formal settings. Perhaps more importantly, I discuss my research on a daily basis with my peers and mentors. These conversations are extremely important because I find that I often need a fresh perspective from somebody who thinks differently than I do. It takes a lot of practice to be able to effectively convey the critical points of an intricate research project to somebody who has a different background than you. Although this is still a skill that I continue to develop, I think that I have been very successful at communicating my research and ideas, because I was able to practice by discussing my undergraduate research with other students who were working in a diverse range of fields. I think that this aspect of the SURA program is very beneficial, because many of my best ideas in graduate school have emerged from conversations with other students who do not study the same topics as I do.

My communication skills continue to improve with practice in graduate school, but the opportunity to communicate with my classmates in the SURA program provided me with a helpful head start, and I would highly recommend that you take advantage of the unique opportunity to discuss your work with your peers who might be able to provide you with a novel perspective.