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Madeleine Russell: The "poop" on undergraduate research opportunities

Madeleine Russell

Madeleine Russell hails from Marshall, Michigan. She is a junior majoring in environmental biology/zoology and is a College of Natural Science Dean’s Research Scholar .

“What do you mean you willingly do research with poop?” was the first question my mother asked me when I called to excitedly tell her about my new research position as a freshman at MSU.Having come from a rural community, I had never been exposed to scientific research in any capacity. A large part of my decision to come to MSU hinged on the undergraduate research opportunities they offered–even the ones that involved getting your hands dirty.

Before participating in undergraduate research, I had no intention of pursuing research as a career, and instead saw it as an opportunity to grow my skills for use in other endeavors.The lab I chose to join largely focuses on how the composition of the gut microbiome influences human development. I came to the lab with little expectation for the work I would be doing or what the scientific process looked like in an academic research setting. I had no idea what “microbiome” meant, let alone how it had such a large impact on human health. Learning that your gut is colonized by billions of bacteria (most of which are helpful) was a bit of a shock. And least invasive, yet still accurate, way of analyzing the composition of the microbiota of the intestine is through DNA extraction from poop samples.

As with most new lab members, I spent the majority of my first semester trying to learn basic lab skills. Responsibility in the lab is earned, and I had to first prove I could master the tasks of labeling and data entry before I was allowed anywhere near the poop samples. While I first was frustrated with the lack of “hard” tasks that I was given, I quickly learned how every task in research is necessary for the completion of the work, and as such should be given its due diligence in attention and effort. I eventually learned wet lab techniques, such as DNA extraction, which were themselves a steep learning curve. In time, I began to understand the science behind the processes and techniques, which in turn complimented my learning in my classes.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted our ability to be in the lab toward the end of my freshman year. Taking this remote period as an opportunity, our principal investigator utilized this time to instruct us on the writing portion of research work. I was assigned to a project that had completed data collection but needed someone to finish the data analysis and manuscript writing. This is where I fell in love with doing research, as I was able to see all aspects of the process come together.

Recently, I saw the fruits of my labor in the form of a publication on my work, for which I was fortunate enough to be first author. Now, moving into my junior and senior year, I am excited to be the lead on a project that I will be heading from start to finish. While this will mean getting my hands dirty again—both in the form of data entry and working in the lab—I am excited to see the knowledge I will gain from being in this position.

I can confidently say now that research will always be a part of my life, and I have MSU to thank for giving me that aspiration.


Publish date: January 25, 2022