Emma Robinson’s co-op experience at Harvard Medical School leads her to pursue a PhD.

Emma Robinson, a Cell and Molecular Biology major, completed a co-op at Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) Datta Lab during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the pandemic altered her time there, Robinson took the changes in stride, the experience ultimately leading her to a career path in neuroscience.

Tell our COS community about yourself.

I’m a Cell and Molecular Biology major with a minor in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality studies and will be graduating in three-and-a-half years this December.

Outside of the classroom, I’ve been involved with several student organizations at Northeastern. I currently serve as Vice President of Programming for the Women’s Research Engagement Network and am Co-Membership Chair for Northeastern’s chapter of the Sigma Xi Research Honors Society. I’m also a member of the Northeastern Undergraduate Researchers of Neuroscience, the Alliance of Civically Engaged Students, and a member of a sorority on campus.

What was your co-op application process like? 

I completed both of my co-ops in the same lab at the HMS Datta Lab in the Neurobiology Department. For my first co-op in spring 2020, I applied during the fall of 2019 and interviewed with several members of the lab. I had a completely normal two months until the pandemic hit in March 2020. Everyone in the lab was sent home and not allowed to come into work for a while. I returned to Boston in June of 2020, once HMS started opening the lab spaces back up again for experiments, to begin working again. I remained there full-time until August of 2020.

During the fall of 2020, I took classes and worked part-time in the lab. In terms of the hiring process for my second co-op, my supervisor mentioned over the summer that they would be willing to have me back for a second co-op during spring of 2021. So, in October of 2020, I approached him about returning and agreed to complete and extended second co-op with them as well, from January 2021 to August 2021. I will continue working part-time there this fall.

Tell us about your role at HMS.

As an Undergraduate Research Assistant, I am supervised by a graduate student and work on a project exploring olfaction (sense of smell) in mice. I’m studying how this pertains to behavior and the formation of food odor preferences.

How did your experiences at Northeastern prepare you for this co-op?

Before my first co-op, I held two research positions, one in a cell biology lab and one in a biochemistry lab. These experiences really helped to prepare me for an academic lab environment. Even so, I had no prior neuroscience experience. To prepare for my co-op, in the fall of 2020, I was able to take two neuroscience electives. It was amazing to go into the lab that semester, even part-time, and be able to apply what my professor had lectured about the day prior in real time.

What has it been like completing two co-ops with the same employer?

It’s been great to work for the second time in the lab. Since my first co-op was cut short and there were restrictions on interacting with others in the lab, working this spring felt both familiar and very different. Since I didn’t have any neuroscience experience before my first co-op, I was personally able to see a big difference in my ability to understand the work we do as well.

Has this co-op offered insight into what you want to pursue long-term as a career or academically?

This co-op experience is the reason I decided I want to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. I love coming into the lab every day and engaging in scientific dialogue. The mentorship I’ve found in the lab has also been super helpful; everyone is always ready to give advice.

What was your favorite part of your co-op?

My favorite part is the opportunity to problem solve! I love sitting down to think through possibilities of why my results don’t look as I had anticipated. I’ve also grown to enjoy the environment I work in and the people I work with. I look up to them all so much; they truly are phenomenal scientists.

Do you have any advice for students looking for work experience in similar fields?

Just get started and feel free to ask questions! You’re brand new, there’s no reason why you need to understand everything immediately. Asking questions is a part of the job and only makes you better at what you do. You’ll also get a better grasp of what science is going on and learn (eventually) enough to be able to contribute your own ideas to the conversation.

Behavioral Neuroscience