Diary of an Undergraduate Thesis

The Georgia Tech Research Option is available to all undergraduate students in the College of Sciences. It includes the completion of an undergraduate thesis. Students who choose to take on all this additional work are generally considered a bit sick in the head. Through these diary entries, I hope I can provide some insight into the joys and trials of completing this process. Particularly, for those who (for some reason) want to take on the same path.

August 24, 2023

Finally figured out the direction that I want my thesis to go in! This has been stressing me out quite a bit, so I’m glad I’m able to figure things out. I talked with my PI and we sort of figured out that I can do a project that combines the calcium sensors our lab has been developing and the dopamine recordings in freely moving mice that we’ve been doing. There’s still a lot of directions this project can go, but this sounds like a good place for me to start thinking (and just as importantly, looking at sources for the background section of my thesis). What I found super helpful is that my PI gave me a set of next steps if I want to pursue this project, which alleviated a lot of my uncertainty. Here they are:

  1. Get trained on stereotactic surgery (mouse brain surgery)
  2. Learning how to run and handle mice in our behavior rig
  3. Injecting mice with whichever thing we want to test (probably dopamine and the sensor at first)
  4. Running in vivo experiments

As you can see, running experiments is step 4, after having to learn a lot of other stuff. Hopefully, I’ll be able to start that step in October/November, but if not I should be able to do it in spring. 

We also discussed how there’s a huge gap in the literature that I honestly hadn’t really considered: we don’t really know how dopamine impacts the excitability of neuron populations. This seems like something really basic to the field, but we haven’t really had the tools to measure it until very recently. I don’t want to get too deep into the particulars of the field, but basically I’m glad that we’ve found something that I can reasonably say fills a need in this field of research. In addition to that being a required part of my thesis’ introduction, it makes me feel a lot more passionate about the work. I think a big challenge of this thesis will be staying motivated as the going gets tough, so this is good.

My next steps will be to get trained on the techniques I’m planning to use and look at some papers for background.

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October 6, 2023

I have been super busy this past month and change. I have been practicing stereotactic surgery, which has proven to be really hard. While I’ve been working on experimental techniques, I’ve also been reading a ton of articles.

Right now, I have around 25 articles in my Zotero (research sorting app), and I’ve read about 7. Although I’m improving in my ability to read research articles, it’s still taking such a long time. 

Now, my literature review is due in two days, and I haven’t read all the papers yet. However, since it’s just a draft, I’ll try to use the background section of my PURA proposal as a base for it. I’m going on a trip tomorrow, so I really don’t want to work on it during my trip.

I’m going to work on it now and just submit the draft. This thesis process has taught me to just turn something in, even if it isn’t perfect.

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November 4, 2023

Well–I think I’m at the point of the semester where it all feels like I’m fighting an uphill battle. Looking at my 4 step plan from August, I’m still working through step 1. My plan of conducting actual experiments in October was a little too rosy. One thing that’s slowed my progress is that although I’ve been practicing mouse surgery, I can only pretty much do one mouse per week. I share the surgery room with other people in the lab, and with scheduling around classes and other lab tasks, that’s all the time I have for practice. 

Still, I feel like I’m making progress, slow as it is. This week, I’m going to be doing my first survival surgery, which is one step closer to being able to put in implants and biosensors into mice.

On the writing side, it’s time for me to revise my lit review, introduction, and work plan and put them together. It’s also necessary for me to get all three (all together they’re called the proposal) signed off by my research advisor and second reader. Honestly, this part kind of scares me because I feel like I haven’t gone in depth enough for my lit review in particular. I’m meeting with my advisor later this week to show him my proposal, so I’ve got to get working on this today and tomorrow (the weekend). Currently feeling stressed out. But I keep telling myself that it’ll pass.

The thing is–I really like doing research, and I find reading articles and learning more information about the topic interesting. But deadlines and expectations always scare me. Even so, I’m trying to tell myself that I have all the tools I need to succeed. I just need to be patient with myself.

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December 1st, 2023

Well, I’ve basically done all my revisions. My readers gave me some really helpful feedback, and it turned out that my proposal was in better shape than I originally thought. I just need to check some of the formatting, and then I’ll wait for the approval form to come out so I can submit it. 

One thing I noticed–that I also talked to my advisor about–is the fact that when I’ve been working on my thesis, it’s made me think about why I am doing what I’m doing. Like it’s simple enough to say I’m working on a project that uses a biosensor, but when I started writing, I started thinking more about the details in a way that I never really did while just doing bench work. Why do we choose this type of biosensor? What gives our approach the advantage over another? In what way does our experimental setup even work?

I think as undergrads, a lot of stuff is technically really complex and hard to grasp. So the researchers who are mentoring us simplify things so we can get a general gist of what’s going on. But when you’re writing your own thesis, or even making a presentation on your research, you’re encouraged to delve deeper into the reasoning behind what you do. And in that way, I think I finally kind of understand why a thesis was put into the curriculum of the research option. 

As the semester is nearing its end, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve done so far. And I feel like while I’m behind on my work plan, I still feel proud about what I’ve accomplished. It’s just an undergraduate thesis–I’m not really expected to produce groundbreaking. Still, I feel like the skills I’m learning (reading journal papers, scientific writing, study design, coordinating with my research advisor) are going to be really helpful in the future.

Or, maybe I just feel like this because the pressure is off, for now. I’m going to put the final touches on my proposal now–see you next semester!

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