Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

Think Research in High School is Daunting and Confusing? Think Again!

5 minute read

Hands on laptop keyboard with colorful post-its, graph chart, coffee cup

High school student Layla discusses the obstacles she faced while researching and writing about nanotechnology in cancer therapy. She offers tips and tricks for staying motivated and juggling multiple responsibilities, especially around AP test season! She tells us that despite all the struggles, the level of accomplishment she felt afterwards was all worth it in the end!

As a high schooler, it can be terrifying to write 5 pages on a complex topic you're still learning the basics of in school. So, why would anyone choose to take on the daunting task of writing a college-level research paper on a complex topic? That sounds almost crazy and seems like it would end only in burnout and stress, which is exactly what we don’t need more of as high schoolers. Despite this fear, I still decided to take on this challenge as a 16-year-old without much prior experience. I’m so proud to say that I was able to complete a research paper on nanotechnology in cancer therapy, but like other prospective students, was definitely intimidated by the prospect of writing one of this caliber for the first time. Yet, my curiosity was piqued from hearing about the amazing projects that were done through Polygence’s program. Plus, my desire to contribute to the field of cancer research was only growing.

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Student exploring their passions

Research, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to learn about a topic you are interested in– especially in high school when you are still figuring out what that might be! It allows you to completely immerse yourself in one specific subject without the stress of being graded. Whether you are interested in creating a PowerPoint on the intriguing history of Napoleonic France, or if you want to learn more about CRISPR and genetics, research can help you delve into these passions. Cancer therapy and research have been an interest of mine since I was 9 years old, and I have spent the past years Googling and reading about therapies, cancer staging, and so much more. After my experience with Polygence, I just know that my 9-year-old self would be so happy that I had the chance to learn so much about nanotechnology and cancer. While it can be complex and at times tiring, doing research on a topic that you love can be extremely rewarding and will give you an inexplicable amount of knowledge and experience.

I began my own project in March this year, and though I knew that I was interested in contributing to the field of cancer research, I had no idea where to begin. My amazing mentor, Nina, knew that I had never written a research paper. She helped me begin my project by having me research specific aspects of the immune system, as well as ligands, molecules, and genes. After only 5 sessions, I had written a whopping 18 pages of notes and had found that nanotechnology was a new and underdeveloped addition to the world of cancer therapies. So, I decided to base my paper on this intriguing discovery. After looking in public journals, I found about 10 publications that focused on different aspects of cancer–from chemotherapy to MRI imaging, to immunotherapy. This process was by no means short, as it went on for about 4 months, but it was still drastically shortened because my notes gave me a sense of direction.

However, I started my project in March and ended in June, meaning that, you guessed it, I was working on my research paper smack dab in the middle of studying for my very first AP Exams. I had never taken APs before and with the extra obstacle that was online learning, I was stressed and worried about these upcoming national exams. Last school year, I took two AP classes: AP World History and AP Music Theory, which both required rigorous studying and took the majority of my time and energy. Not to mention, I still had tests and projects to work on in my non-AP classes, along with my Polygence project, track practice, and violin lessons!

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Sitting girl reading a book in the field

It was a lot to juggle all at once and required new and improved study habits, as well as better time management. Because I knew that I had a lot of work to do, but was also just a sophomore in high school, my goal was to avoid burnout. I wanted to keep my schedule as balanced as it possibly could be, which I imagine many of you would want as well. Therefore, after having finishing my project, here are the tips and tricks that I found to be the most helpful:

  • I downloaded the Todoist extension on Google Chrome. This kept me organized and allowed me to plan for the upcoming days in a way that could easily be modified. Having a list at my fingertips proved to be helpful as I was less likely to forget about small assignments or goals I set for myself.

  • I decided to break up parts of my project into chunks. Because I was analyzing and learning from dense and complex publications, I made sure to only set a small chunk for myself daily. This way I was less likely to procrastinate and instead, allowed myself to enjoy research through learning day-by-day versus cramming lots of information into a couple of hours.

  • I set specific times to do homework and study. For instance, on a typical day, I might read my cram books from 2-3 pm, take a small break, write some of my Polygence paper, practice violin, take another break around 6 pm, do practice AP questions, eat dinner, and finish off with some regular schoolwork. Having set times to do work allowed me to procrastinate less—another struggle we all face—which definitely increased productivity, but also let me sleep earlier since I finished my work in a more organized manner. Win-win!

  • Most importantly, I learned to understand and listen to my body’s cues. I also made sure to be kind to myself if I wasn’t able to finish my list for the day. If I felt tired or mentally exhausted, I would move one or more items from my to-do list to another day—rearranging so that I still finished everything on time. This was one of the biggest reasons I was able to avoid suffering from burnout and allowed myself to practice healthier study habits.

Overall, my Polygence project was an experience I am so grateful to have had. While it was difficult, and at times confusing or frustrating, I really enjoyed learning more about cancer therapy and being able to meet a whole new community of people who introduced me to the wonderful realm of research. It is an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

If you’re wondering how it all ended, I sent my paper in June to the Youth Medical Journal in August and it was published soon after! Even more so, as of November 2021, it is also currently in the editing stage at the Young Scientists Journal! So, if you are planning on applying for Polygence, or if you are extra nervous starting your research project, take this as a sign to go for it and explore your passions! Don’t let the fear of starting a new chapter stop you from reaching feats you’re truly proud of!

You can read Layla’s research paper here.

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