Lamya Karim speaks at MassURC 2024 at the University of Massachusetts
Photo: Eva Trainer

On Friday, April 19, Lamya Karim, an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was preparing for her keynote address for the Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference (MassURC). Participants shuffled into the Cape Cod Lounge at the Student Union, greeted by warm coffee, pastries and a welcoming environment. 

Mari Castañeda introduces Lamya Karim at MassURC at the University of Massachusetts
Mari Castañeda introduces Lamya Karim, Photo: Kimberly Manyanga

Commonwealth Honors College Dean Mari Castañeda opened the conference and welcomed Karim to UMass Amherst.

Karim began her keynote speech discussing her research focus, bone health in diabetic persons. She explained that diabetes is a condition that has only grown exponentially within the United States, with over 38 million currently experiencing diabetes. Those with diabetes are at a higher risk of bone fractures, noted Karim. 

In examining such a specific topic, Karim discussed her research journey and how she got to where she is today. In her postdoctoral position at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Karim studied bone samples from patients directly. She did her graduate work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and gained practical lab experience. In her undergraduate career at Stony Brook University, Karim studied the techniques of bone imaging that are crucial to the research she currently undertakes. This journey demonstrates the culmination of the skills she has developed throughout her twenty year academic career.

“There really is no improvement or advancement in research, or learning in general, without failing and trying things out,” explained Karim – highlighting the main goal of her address. 

Karim later discussed the foundational years of her research experience. While studying at Stony Brook University, Karim talked about the “unglamorous” experience she had. A couple stories Karim shared included the time she put cement in her lab’s glass beakers, rendering them unusable. She also recounted the time she left bone samples to thaw and inadvertently left them out over the weekend, spoiling the bone and weeks of research. 

Learning Experiences During the Research Journey

Lamya Karim speaks at MassURC 2024 at the University of Massachusetts
Photo: Lily Attias-Inzano

Yet, Karim noted that these failures were not her biggest issue in her undergraduate research journey. She felt purposeless and that her research career had been disjointed. But, she chased opportunities like work in a bone lab or publishing research with the Biomedical Engineering Society

What lessons did Karim gain from the failures and opportunities in her undergraduate research journey? Karim presented her many learning experiences that she still values to this day. These include: 

  • Exposure to different research areas
  • The value of the connections between her professors outside the classroom
  • The art of presenting and many other more valuable experiences.

Karim then discussed her graduate school research journey at the School of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). She explained that her journey was not picture perfect at RPI. Her first ever project, which took over a year to complete, led to a null conclusion. She studied rare bone samples from elderly mice, but forgot some crucial information that almost derailed her study. She also told of another story, where her advisor challenged her to network at the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. She recounted an embarrassing first impression with a colleague, who later, she explained, helped her students in their postdoctoral research.

But graduate school provided her the research tools needed to further her career. She also learned the ability to present her research. In these lessons, Karim gained an appreciation for adaptability and storytelling in science communication. 

Karim also praised her graduate school mentor who demonstrated the importance of the mentor-mentee relationship. Karim encouraged students to find mentors that can set them up for further success in their careers.

As she moved on to postdoctoral research at Beth Israel with Mary Bouxsein, the so-called “bone queen”. Karim also praised Bouxsein, who fostered relationships with other women in science, and helped her overcome her imposter syndrome. Karim recounted her mishaps and successes in her postdoctoral research, just as she had failed and succeeded in the past.

The Importance of Undergraduate Researchers

In her postdoctoral research, Karim developed not only her research tool belt, but the management of research. She also gained a passion for teaching after her postdoctoral experience. Karim explained that she works with undergraduate researchers because it is not only valuable to them, but it is valuable to her as well. When explaining what she looks for in researchers, Karim noted that the biggest factor she looks for is motivation and work ethic.

At UMass Dartmouth, Karim laid out her primary goal for her lab – providing a welcoming environment for many inexperienced college students and providing the support these students need. As director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, she aims to also support and foster undergraduate research, providing resources and the attention needed for such important work.

Explaining why undergraduate students should pursue research, Karim laid out the many lessons that students learn. These include problem solving, work ethic, and new experiences. Another reason to pursue research that Karim mentioned is the relationships built between undergraduate students and their mentors. She showcased some of her former student researchers who now work in biotech, software development, other scientific research or moved onto graduate school. 

“These students have truly shown me through their hard work, they can succeed at something and if you don’t at least try, you can’t succeed at it,” she said.

Concluding, Karim welcomed students to open their minds and realize that research is not what it seems like in film and television. She explained that research can be tedious but as long as students maintain their determination, they can reap the many benefits that come from research.

An audience member asks a question during the keynote at MassURC 2024 at the University of Massachusetts
An audience member asks a question during the keynote, Photo: Lily Attias-Inzano

As participants left the Cape Cod Lounge, Karim was asked what should undergraduate students take from the MassURC,

“It’s an opportunity to talk about what you do with people who maybe have no idea what your field is. I tell my students to learn to talk about what you do with other people because you’re not always going to be stuck talking to your own people.”

Article posted in Research for Faculty , Staff , Prospective students , and Current students