For my STEP project, I worked with Air Force Research Labs in the Non- Invasive Brain stimulation branch in Dayton, Oh. I worked with various form of brain stimulation, such as tDCS, trigeminal nerve stimulation and photobiomodulation. My main focus was on creating a working memory task that could be used to test if photobiomodulation enhanced cognitive abilities in healthy humans. This research is important because the military is interested in improving the cognition and vigilance of its soldiers to increase efficiency and accuracy. During my internship, I was able to understand how to develop a successful research design, troubleshoot technology commonly used in cognitive research, such as eye-tracking and stimulation devices, and learn how to conduct statistical analysis on data.
Before starting my internship I felt the only way to conduct research was to obtain a PhD and then work for a university where you are also expected to teach classes. This was very discouraging to me because I did not want to go through seven years of school before I was able to start a career. I wanted to be able to start a family and be able to have more freedom of where I could work. Due to my preconceived notions of what it meant to be a scientist, and the life I knew I wanted to live, I felt I was not able to pursue a career in research even though I had a passion for it. I also had very little experience in research as a whole. I had no idea how to properly design an experiment that answered a research question. I also had no idea how crucial statistical analysis is for understanding your results in research. Without the proper use of stats, there is no way to know if your results are valid or if they prove your hypothesis or not.
Throughout my time at AFRL, I spoke with many people about how they ended up in their career. I found that while many people did have PhDs, a large portion of the people involved in the research process had masters or even only bachelor’s degrees. I also spoke with the people who had PhDs and found that they had first started working and started their life and then went back to pursue a higher degree. They also told me that by working for the government they were able to gain scholarships and stipends to help pay for school. By talking to my mentors, I was able to see that I could have the lifestyle I wanted while still pursuing my passion for research.
During my internship, I also learned so much about research design. One of the problems we ran into during our project was that subjects were encoding the images provided to memorize verbally. This was problematic because this means the subjects are using a different part of their brain than what we expected. Before being exposed to research it would not have occurred to me that this would be a problem that would need to be addressed. Now, however, I understand how to check all the crucial details of an experiment before continuing the research. I also learned that troubleshooting is a very large part of research. There were many times when we would have to redesign our experiment slightly because a device was not working properly or it needed special accommodations to run properly. Due to these problems, I gained a lot of experience with troubleshooting the technology that is commonly used in neuroscience research. This experience with multiple types of technology makes me a valuable candidate for future research positions.
I also discovered how crucial a strong knowledge of data analysis is when you are trying to interpret results from data collected. For example, if you change one aspect of how you do your analysis, such as the confidence interval, then this can entirely change the way you interpret the significance of your results. Having a strong understanding of stats also can influence how you view other people’s research and allows you to view their results with a critical eye. Over the summer I learned how to conduct confidence intervals, run ANOVA tests and run T-test on data that I collected. This experience not only helped me gain research experience but it has helped me excel in my current stats class here at Ohio State.
By having this research I am now planning on pursuing a career in research with the Department of Defense. This internship also allowed me to make connections within AFRL so now when I graduate I will have a great chance to work with them as a career. My mentors also gave me plentiful advice on scholarships and stipends awarded by the DoD so that I can try to pursue higher education without the financial burden that would inhibit me. Overall, this experience showed me that my passions are obtainable and gave me the resources I need to accomplish them.