By Molly Rossi, ’16

Imagine a biology major. Do you picture a quiet, polite undergrad, perhaps clutching a textbook and donning a lap coat? Maybe even goggles? Memorizing impossibly long, sciencey words?

Now, turn that image upside down. Replace a textbook with an acoustic guitar. Meet Molly Sanborn, ’16. She’s a biology major, a psychology minor, and a Science Scholar at the University of Richmond. She sits across from me strumming and humming, laughing as she recalls the ups and downs of a summer in the lab, impassioned with every word as she describes her undergraduate research on maternal rat behavior with psychology professor Craig Kinsley.

Sure, she was wearing a coat and goggles all summer. But Sanborn breaks the mold, and so did her innovative summer research project. From the very beginning. “In a lot of labs, the professor tells the students what they are researching. That’s not Dr. K’s style,” said Sanborn. “He asks, ‘So what do you want to do? Okay, go figure it out.’” And figure it out, she did. Sanborn set out to study the impact of maternity on social hierarchy in rats. But halfway through her summer project, she experienced something many researchers do — her model quit working.

Starting again from scratch, Sanborn dived back into research and completely redesigned her experiment. Instead of examining social hierarchy through the race-like competition she used originally, she began studying the markings rats left behind for characteristic signs of dominance. She ended up finding the redesigned experiment so interesting that she hopes to continue recording data in the spring.

Though she admits the level of ownership Kinsley allowed the students could be intimidating, Sanborn also found it to be the strongest aspect of her experience. “Dr. Kinsley was a really good research mentor because he allowed it to be my research,” she said. “When I ran across a problem, I had to solve it on my own. I realized that I was capable of always figuring it out for myself, and he was impressed with our independence.”

Sanborn has read countless research articles and lab reports throughout her three years as a science major, but the experience gave her new perspective on what goes into the work she’s been studying, and how hard it must have been for the researcher to design each and every experiment she’s studied. “When you think about scientific research, you think okay, cool, here is a set of results, and here’s a conclusion. You never realize how much trial and error goes into it.”

“Most of the time, I’m kind of messing around, which makes those moments when I figure stuff out just amazing. It’s one thing to hear about results, and something else to make results.” Producing results was far from easy, but Sanborn took moments to pause and remind herself what she was there to accomplish. “There is a quote on the wall in the lab that says: ‘If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research. I looked back on that constantly — it’s true!’”

It’s that broad-mindedness paired with a remarkable level of focus that pushed Molly to match her biology minor with a psychology major in the first place, and allowed her to work in Kinsley’s lab. “I know about physiology of beings and organisms and life, but it is one thing to know how they function, and another thing to know how they think,” she said. “I think psychology is such a useful perspective to have, not just academically or for a science major, but for looking at the world.”

What does the experience mean for her future? After a semester in South Africa, Sanborn was impassioned to study infectious diseases and microbiology as a graduate student. While her research did not change this goal, it has changed the way she thinks about achieving it — and the way she thinks about science in general. “Pretty much anyone can follow directions, but being able to problem solve and figure stuff out on your own is a much more impressive skill,” she said. “Research is less about what you discover and more about what you learn.”

And with that, Sanborn went back to strumming her guitar.

Thinking about doing summer research?

Molly Sanborn’s advice to prospective science majors: “Find a project you’re passionate about. You can’t spend a summer in a lab and be productive if it isn’t something you really want to do.” If she hadn’t had that intrinsic investment and freedom in her project, she says, her experience would not have been nearly as fruitful.

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