Undergrad in the Spence Lab: Interview with Lexi Fine
Posted by Sarah Tolchin on 2022-03-14
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Lexi Fine to talk about her work as a student researcher at the University of Michigan. Lexi is currently a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in anthropology and minoring in art.
We first talked about what made her want to get involved in research as an undergraduate. “Growing up,” Lexi says, “my mom always said she imagined me going into research.” She tells me she always knew that she wanted to participate in research in college. Part of the reason why she chose to attend the University of Michigan was because of its consistent ranking as one of the top five public research institutes in the country. Once a student at U of M, she spent much of her freshman year getting her footing and taking in all the different aspects of a college education and experience. However, between the end of her freshman year to the beginning of her sophomore year, she began to seriously look into the different labs on campus. Lexi says that her experience looking for a research lab differs from that of many other students because she did not participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, or UROP, but rather found a lab all on her own. She researched the different labs on campus and sent cold emails to different P.I.s, however, she recalls that the majority did not reply. While there is no guarantee of hearing back from any of the P.I.s, Lexi tells me that she would recommend that other students go through the process of finding labs on their own via cold emails. To the students who did not know what UROP was during their freshman year or who do not have room in their class schedules to take the additional credits of the UROP class, she says “you can still find amazing opportunities on campus.”
It was through her preliminary research, cold emails, and desire to work with stem cells that she found the Spence lab. After two interviews, one with a Ph.D. student and another with the lab’s P.I., Lexi accepted a research position and joined the lab. She tells me that this lab is one of the biggest on campus and has many different researchers working on many different projects with both lungs and intestines. The Ph.D. student she interviewed with, Renee Conway, became her mentor and introduced her to their work with lungs. One of Lexi’s favorite parts about working with Renee in the Spence lab is their project. They are currently studying potential treatments for cystic fibrosis, work she enjoys because she knows it will have a direct impact on people’s lives.
When I ask about what a typical day in the lab looks like, Lexi tells me that there is no typical day and that she could be working on a wide variety of tasks on any given day. One of her primary roles in the lab is working with cells and doing experiments on them, something she was very interested in doing before joining the Spence lab. “Every day I do something with cell culture,” including feeding, passaging, replating, thawing, and fixing cells for experiments as well as making the media used to feed the cells. She tells me that some of her experiments can go on for months, especially when she is differentiating stem cells into lung cells. Another task of hers is running qPCR plates–a three-step process of fixing the cells, isolating the RNA, making the cDNA, and then finally running the qPCR plate. She also does immunofluorescence staining where she takes thinner-than-paper sections of cells and fixes them on slides and then stains them for certain mRNA or protein. The Spence lab is unique in that it is one of the only labs in the country that has access to primary fetal lung tissue. When the lab receives primary tissue shipments, such as lung tissue, Lexi gets to dissociate them and grow out the bud tips, which is one of her favorite tasks to do in the lab.
I was curious to hear what Lexi’s favorite part about working in the Spence lab was. She first tells me that she loves the research that she gets to participate in, especially having the opportunity to work with fetal lung tissue and cell culture. She says that she wanted to get experience with as many different aspects of research as possible, and that is something she has been able to do with this lab. Lexi then talks about how much she enjoys her mentor and the overall environment of the lab. “My mentor is incredible,” she says. “She was very descriptive in the interview and asked me what I was interested in, and [now] consistently gives me the opportunity to do the tasks that I want to do.” The lab itself consists mostly of women, and she says that it is inspiring to be a part of an environment with strong, intelligent women who are doing it all. “I can ask them life questions and they give me tons of advice and guidance,” she says.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Lexi how participating in undergraduate research with the Spence lab will help her with her postgraduate interests. She tells me that regardless of what path she takes in the future, she will be pursuing science and medicine. “The experiences I have had in this lab have been invaluable and eye-opening,” she says. “I didn’t realize I would have a future in scientific research, but now that is a path I am strongly considering.” Participating in undergraduate research has given her the ability to see science applied in real life and has proven to her that she can do good work in this field and become a successful scientist in the future. “My time in the Spence lab has been the most incredible and impactful part of my undergrad experience,” Lexi says.