For my STEP experience, I chose to pursue an undergraduate experience in Chemical Engineering. My pursuit of this endeavor led me to join the Catalytic Material Design Group, headed by Dr. Nicholas Brunelli. The group’s research centers around catalysts, which are chemicals/materials that speed up chemical reactions. The goal of the group’s research is to design better catalysts by focusing on atomic-level control of active sites. For my project, I focused on designing and creating a novel catalyst that is inspired by enzymes, nature’s catalysts. My day-to-day activities included conducting experiments, synthesizing materials, and participating in meetings and discussions.
One of the biggest things that I immediately noticed about myself when first starting my research experience was that my work ethic evolved to be much more systematic and organized. The research I do requires a lot of planning and careful time management, so I quickly had to adapt to the work schedule of research, which in turn has affected my overall work ethic for projects and classwork. On a larger scale, my experience in a research group opened my eyes to the global research community. As I started reading more literature and talking to more people in the research community, I began to see the importance of publishing and sharing information with others in the scientific community. In fact, many publications and findings are results of collaboration between research groups and are supported by years of research from other groups. This realization challenged the former assumption that I had that research stems purely from the creative genius of the individual researcher. In fact, the basis of most research comes from years of work and discussion of many groups and individuals and becomes the support for the researcher’s ideas. Keeping an open mind when reading the work of others allows you to see others’ viewpoints and opinions that you may have not considered before. In addition, I’ve learned that collaboration is a key way to solving problem because it not only combines your expertise and knowledge with others’, but also gives you a new perspective of the problem or subject you are studying.
From the first day that I met with my research advisor, everything had a planned systematic approach. I was to read certain papers, write a report, and discuss what I learned with my advisor and colleagues. While schoolwork often follows the same structure, this was different because I had the excitement of being able to study something new at my own pace and being able to apply that knowledge in the lab. In the beginning, the experiments that I conducted were trivial and more oriented toward training me to be comfortable in the lab. But, the point when I felt like all my training and preparation had come to fruition was when one of the graduate students and I were able to successfully synthesize a novel catalyst that we had been working on for months. This catalyst has not be synthesized by anyone else and we are very excited for the potential that it holds. During a testing phase where we tested the ability of the catalyst to catalyze a reaction, I can shamelessly say that I did a little dance of joy when the news broke that the catalyst worked.
One of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences I’ve had in research was the opportunity to present my work and findings to a variety of audiences. Through my undergraduate research experience with Dr. Brunelli’s group, I have discovered the importance of communicating and sharing information. In our group, we have a requirement that all undergraduates present their work at group meetings at least once a month. The structure of group meetings centers around the presenter and their work, with group members giving constructive feedback and evaluations on the presenter’s performance. This system has helped me develop my presentation skills tremendously. Preparing presentations for research is quite a different experience from traditional presentations. One of the challenges of creating a research presentation is that it questions whether you really know your own material. More often than not, I’ve found that I learned more about my project and findings while creating a presentation than I do when discussing it with my research advisor. In addition, creating presentations has also helped me develop a sense for what information to select based on my audience. I’ve realized that I often have much more to say than I have room or time to talk about. As such, I’ve learned to selectively choose what I want to say in order to make the most impact with the audience I have. Another outlet that I have presented my research though is at poster sessions. A creative advantage of poster sessions is that your audience generally has limited knowledge of my research topic. Consequently, I am able to walk my audience through my project from the ground up and make a bigger impact on their understanding of my project. During my first poster session, I was nervous and unsure of what to expect, but with time, I found that I was able to effectively convey my research to my audience at a high level that was easy for them to understand and appreciate. With more positive feedback, I became even more encouraged and even eager to talk about my work with the next person.
With the many problems I encounter everyday in research, my problem solving skills have improved substantially. One of the more noticeable personal improvements this has made was to my interview skills. Questions that I formerly had trouble answering are now made easy (and even enjoyable) to answer because of the diverse experiences that I have had in the lab. In addition, many of the skills I have learned over the past several months are easily transferable to any workplace. I also learned not to be afraid to ask others for help. Many problems and questions in research are not solved by the work of one individual alone. With this mindset, I made many valuable connections with students and professors that have helped me with my work substantially. An example of this is when I was first deciding which research group I wanted to work for. I had many groups on my list and was quite apprehensive to approach any of them out of fear of saying the wrong thing or giving off the wrong impression. My STEP advisor noticed this and helped me break out of that shell and instructed me on how to properly approach professors. With this newfound knowledge and resolve, I took the initiative to go to a networking dinner where I met Dr. Brunelli and was able to have a great conversation with him about his research. Without the will to make connections, I would have had a much harder time finding a research position that I was happy at.
The transformations to my character and experiences have helped build a basis for me to succeed in the future. Not only has this experience in research developed good personal habits, formed valuable relationships with students and professors, and allowed me to learn new technical knowledge and skills, but it has also broadened my worldview on research. My future goal at this point is to get a job in industry, and this experience has developed my professional and technical skills to a new level to where I am confident that I will be able to succeed in any work environment. In addition, the academic research experience gave me a positive taste of what graduate school is like if I choose to pursue that route. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this STEP experience and hope to be able to continue to pursue and learn from my research for the rest of my undergraduate career.