How Do I Find My Research Passion? 

student reading a pH sample

Getting specific: identifying research interests

Evolution and Ecology, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, Plant Biology—no matter your discipline, there are plenty of research opportunities at the College of Biological Sciences.

Our faculty members provide the foundational research necessary to advance life sciences across its many disciplines. Their work helps protect our oceans, feed the future, combat cancer, decode learning and memory and much more.

But how do you find the research that’s right for you?

It all starts with identifying your scientific interests, but that doesn’t mean you have to come to UC Davis with your mind set on a specific area of research. You’re here to find your passion, and a great way for freshmen and transfer students to do that is by enrolling in the BioLaunch first-year experience program. The program provides students the chance to learn about research opportunities via faculty-student lunches and guest lectures in the Exploring Biological Sciences BIS 005/198 course.

But even if you’ve finished your first year on campus, there are many ways to find your research passion. It’s helpful to take an inventory of the classes you enjoy most. If there are topics that you have a natural affinity for, they may be good options for research areas.

Rebecca Calisi
As a neurobiologist, Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez uses birds to help unlock the mysteries of how the brain and body can work together to promote reproduction in animals, including humans. She and her team mentor over 20 undergraduate students. UC Davis

Discover your curiosity

Often, interest in a specific research area can by spurred by curiosity. Before becoming an endocrinologist, Assistant Professor Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, studied studio art and psychology. But while painting a mural at the Dallas Zoo, a mystery concerning animal behavior shifted her career towards the life sciences.

As Calisi Rodríguez said when it comes to a career in the sciences, “There is no specific path, only the path you make.”

Your personal experiences can also inspire research interests. Such was the case with College of Biological Sciences Dean Mark Winey, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Winey studies centrosomes, cellular structures responsible for organizing microtubules in the cell’s cytoplasm. His interest in the microscopic aspects of biology was inspired by his younger sister, who as an infant was diagnosed with an inherited metabolic disease. Winey was amazed at how doctors diagnosed his sister’s illness. It inspired him to pursue research that would benefit human health.

Mark Winey and Students in Lab
Mark Winey, dean of the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences, became fascinated by science at an early age. But the draw to biology—specifically, genetics—was prompted by his sister's mysterious inherited disease called galactosemia. David Slipher/UC Davis

“Living systems are beyond complex,” Winey said. “That was the core of my interest, just trying to understand very complex living systems.”

College of Biological Sciences students are also finding their passion based on personal connections.  

  • Engineering stronger ligaments: neurobiology, physiology and behavior undergrad Alec Avey was an outside linebacker on his high school’s football team, but a torn rotator cuff stopped his play. Now, as an undergraduate researcher in Professor Keith Baar’s Functional Molecular Biology Lab, Avey examines and modifies ligaments in Petri dishes in hopes of finding new therapeutics to aid ligament recovery.
  • Identifying marine inverterbrate habitats: evolution, ecology and biodiversity undergrad Emily Meyers became fascinated with marine science at a young age thanks to her parents encouraging a love for the outdoors. Recently, Meyers received a fellowship that allowed her to conduct senior thesis research at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, where she studied the invertebrates that live in seagrass beds.
  • Exploring enzymology'18 Biochemistry and molecular biology graduate Bita Shahrvini got involved in research at UC Davis at the end of her first fall quarter. Her classes had reinforced her interest in biochemistry, and she found herself particularly intrigued with enzymology, the study of enzymes.

“There’s so much that we’ve understood but also so much more to understand,” Shahrvini said of her interest in biochemistry research. “The complexity of life is something that humanity has been interested in since the beginning, so understanding the science behind it is intriguing to me.”

Student clubs and organizations

Another way you can identify potential research interests is by joining one or more of the 800-plus student clubs on campus. Think you might have an interest in emergency medicine?

Check out the UC Davis Emergency Medicine Research Associate Program, which gives undergraduate students firsthand experience inside the UC Davis Medical Center’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

Other biology related clubs include the Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior Club, the Microbiome Club and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Chapter at UC Davis, among others.  

Here’s a list of student organizations registered specifically with the College of Biological Sciences. From primatology and sports medicine to autism awareness and cognitive science, you’ll find an organization that piques your curiosity.

Identifying your passions will bring you one step closer to an undergraduate research position. Our next post will explore: How do I connect with faculty researchers?

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