Celia Vandestadt, former UROP student: “My UROP placement changed my whole scientific trajectory”

Celia did her year-long UROP placement in 2013 and it changed her scientific life. It gave her the hands-on experience she never got during her undergraduate coursework and prepared her for a PhD, which she is currently about to finish at Monash University’s Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI). In this interview, Celia explores what were the drivers, highlights and turns of her UROP experience.

Why did you apply for UROP?

When I came across UROP I was immediately drawn to the idea of it. I felt like it was important to gain a real-life experience into what being an academic would be like, because during my undergrad I only got some insights into it. But UROP was something different: it allowed me to embed myself in the lab and work on a real-world project.

Also, as an undergrad student, I was very pressed for time. I was dedicated full time to my studies, but I had to earn a living too. UROP was a unique opportunity to fulfil both needs, while also gaining an amazing lab experience.

Would you say UROP was valuable to you?

Yes! I did UROP in my last year of undergrad, so at that time it was extremely valuable for me to go through a real application process: writing my CV, preparing for the genuine interview process, and finally getting experience in a lab.

The UROP Conference was also very valuable, I still remember it! It was my first experience presenting my scientific research. It was a bit daunting, getting up there and talking for 5 minutes about my results in front of a crowd, but it was very rewarding. I attended the presentation skills workshop offered before the Conference, and that really helped me. I still use some of those tips when I write presentations today.

My UROP experience, with a genuine project and real-world work,
gave me the confidence to seriously pursue science.

How much has UROP influenced your scientific career?

My UROP placement changed my whole scientific trajectory, because I fell in love with research. Working on a real project sparked my curiosity, which led me to continue with that project through honours and, eventually, gave me the confidence to say “yeah, I can pursue this crazy thing called a PhD”. Because, to be honest, at the end of my undergrad I wasn’t sure whether I should pursue academia or find a job. My UROP experience, with a genuine project and real-world work, gave me the confidence to seriously pursue science.

How was the relationship with your UROP supervisor?

My supervisor had more of a guiding role and our relationship was rather informal. He gave me freedom to explore but also provided guidance when I needed it. He wanted me to go and get my hands dirty and find solutions to problems by myself, and then go back to him to discuss my results. Thanks to that freedom, I got to see how much fun wet lab work could be!

Would you recommend UROP to new students? What tips would you give them?

Absolutely. It’s a smart move for students because they will gain an incredibly valuable experience. In my case, UROP allowed me to really understand the techniques in the lab, which helped me to do well on my Honours and afterwards to succeed in getting a PhD scholarship.

My tips would be, firstly, to throw yourself at it, take it with both hands and try to get yourself immersed in the lab as much as possible. Secondly, to learn from people working around you, even if it’s just shadowing. Be curious about your research organisation and try to engage with peers. And finally, remember that you are not expected to know everything! So, don’t be afraid to ask questions or get things wrong, and make sure you speak up if you don’t understand something or if you need further clarification.

Would you like to become a supervisor?

Definitely! The questions and the energy that new students bring are so welcome in the lab. That energy feeds into what we are doing on a daily basis and makes the lab more fun. It’s a very positive symbiotic relationship between the the lab and the students, we all benefit from UROP!


Read more about the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) here.