White Volunteering: A Scarring STEP Backwards

Coming to the United States for college has taught me a lot more about colonialism across the world and in my own country that I would have ever learnt staying in India. However, this is not to say it was an easy or painless process of learning. No, the everyday lived experiences of students of colour in American classrooms (and elsewhere) can be psychologically damaging. I recall one of my classmates from the United States, another woman of colour, explaining how we do not talk about what happens to students of colour in classrooms as violence. But, there is no two ways about it. We no longer live in a world where we will be silenced, and that is a hard pill for white people to swallow when they have done such a good job of remaining insulated from their actions so far. They have made a mistake by allowing us to be educated since it has only pushed us to learn that we are worthy and equal (if not more), and unshackle ourselves from the master’s tools. There is a history of people of colour not being believed by their white and privileged peers. This is despite the fact white people will never be able to understand the experience of a coloured person unless they listen to their darker peers. It is quite convenient, then, that they silence those whose voices will force them to acknowledge the stark inequalities and unfairness that exists at the cost of their privilege. Every day I have been focused on educating those around me about these realities knowing that many of my black brothers and sisters, as well as other Americans of colour, have no other home they could return to away from white people like I can. Never mind that white supremacy is still a dominating factor in Indian society. My privilege of having a distinct identity and of travelling across the world and be educated on a full scholarship has always been apparent to me. With privilege, regardless of how minute, comes power. I have worked to use that to the best of my ability, especially after watching my white peers squander their power and allow their peers to be attacked and killed endlessly with indifference.

So, when the opportunity to have the STEP (Second Year Transformational Program) scholarship was offered, I took it. I jumped through all the hoops with my apathetic white peers, many of whom dropped out because initiative and drive is a rarity when you have been spoon fed your entire life. I was only able to go back home to India twice during the three years I have been in the United States. Therefore, I wanted to use this $2000 to enhance my summer back home this year. So, I chose to spend it on a study abroad program suggested by STEP that is run by an American volunteering organisation in Dharamshala, India. To give this organisation the courtesy of plausible deniability, I will refer to them as Program X. It has always been a desire of mine to go to Dharamshala as it is one of the most sacred places in the country, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself inhabiting the land. I also was sure that in today’s world such a organisation as Program X would have transcended the problematic white supremacist complexes that often guided white people to go into developing countries. I was sadly mistaken and think it so foolish that I assumed anything except a painful exposure to more white supremacy from white peers would happen, and in my own home this time. How can white people be trusted to help those in need in other countries when a violent war with a high death toll persists in their own countries? How can they be trusted to do more good than harm when their own black brothers and sisters drop like flies everyday because of an inherently racist system? The answer is simple: they cannot. In accordance with Ivan Illich’s ‘To Hell With Good Intentions’, a speech he addressed to American volunteers going into Mexico, white people are hypocrites of the worst kind. They are supremacist and paternalistic people who use their “do-gooding” ways to feel better trying to fix (but only further eroding) a world they have ruined. I only wish they could be banned from the countries they once colonised so we can stand on our feet without them being cut off from under us. Nevertheless, that will never happen in India as it is a nation built on the antonym of whiteness – acceptance and love.

Here is an excerpt from Ivan Illich’s speech that is most fitting in the Indian context as well:

“By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it – the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants “develop” by spending a few months in their villages…

If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.”

I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognise your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.”

It was rather idealistic of me to expect anything except a display of white supremacy through this program. It reminded me of the summer before when I had brought two of my white-cultured friends to India. I did not realise I would deeply regret this decision due to the overwhelming emotional and social toll it took on my family and myself. Being in my comfort zone, I was blunt with them about the situation and their behaviour. Unlike white people, passive-aggression is not our way. Indians are assertive and direct. We do not beat around the bush, politely smile at strangers and hold doors open for people. We stand up for the things we believe in regardless of the repercussions. White people’s false way of interacting with others is extremely uncomfortable for me. But, I have learnt over time and through such experiences that it allows them to preserve that which they value most – their image or ego. Even family, let alone friendship, is not an exception to this rule. The complete exocitisation and appropriation of my country and culture by these two boys who had never left the midwestern America before this is something that I think I will forever blame myself for enabling. It is in the fabric of India to extend our arms out to the world regardless of the pain caused by the consequences. In the same way, despite having an idea that Program X was very much guided towards educating and gathering white people to work to improve conditions for people of colour (writing this sentence makes me cringe and have colonial flashbacks), I was very keen to go to Dharamshala and see the Dalai Lama. I was so keen that upon my realisation that $2000 dollars barely covered 2 weeks, the minimum duration I could volunteer for, I still made ends meet. It didn’t necessarily seem as economical as I thought, but my parents respected my decision to go ahead with it anyway. This is just as they accepted I was bringing two boys back home last year despite the strong patriarchy that surrounds us in India. Overlooking the evident capitalism that Program X is inextricably tied to was another big mistake I made. I was completely guided by my own spiritual desire to go to a place known for having good energy and intense meditative capacity. This is something that white people can never understand since they have only occupied other people’s homes and beliefs, and never had convictions of their own outside of capitalism itself. When all the Program X members who spoke to me realised I was Indian, they were quick to be as respectful as possible and walk on eggshells. When I was sent a presentation that was clearly geared for white people, I laughed when it stated India’s “National Food” was curry. India has no national food. It has hundreds of cuisines from every household in the country. I even felt second-hand embarrassment because curry is a generic term like sandwich. The only national food that exists in relation to India is that of our former coloniser, the British. Their national food is a dish they modified from the north Indian cuisine to suit their taste buds – chicken tikka masala. I wish I could rest my case here, but I know that many of my readers may be white. Therefore, as usual, I am tasked with providing an explanation that has to be laboriously broken down in a detailed manner for them to actually (hopefully) understand. I informed my program coordinator who I spoke to on Skype when she was in Morocco that the presentation reflected ignorance and would only perpetuate this amongst its majority white readers. She apologised profusely and deferred blame to the previous coordinator of the program who I had spoken with at an earlier stage. I was trying not be uncomfortable having this conversation while watching the brown woman on the screen behind her cleaning her room. I just wish I had backed out then, but I valued the time and money I had put into having this opportunity. I wish I could say the same about the other volunteers who were staying much longer than me and probably paying thousands of dollars to live in a country where one spends barely hundreds otherwise.

I didn’t even get the chance to interact with the children in the schools that Program X was working with in Dharamshala. No, I could never do it side by side with white supremacists. I would not be able to bear the anguish that it would cause within me. I could not be powerlessly a part of their colonial white-saviour experience. I could not watch my country be exoticised and accept it ever again. It made matters worse that many locals stopped and asked these woman to take pictures with them since they had never seen anyone with such white skin or green eyes. This internalised white supremacy amongst my people made me feel the knife twist in my stomach. I was not safe in that situation anymore. I was in my own motherland and I was not safe. Their white skin overpowered me. For the second year in a row, I had put myself in a situation with whiteness in my home turf knowingly. Except, this time, I could run away from it rather than wait patiently for it to end. As soon as I arrived, I saw the program was being run by an Indian man who seemed answerable to a white woman, I will refer to her as K. She had just been given the run of the mill after arriving from Costa Rica. I had been told that this program was run by locals, but it couldn’t have been farther from the truth. If anything, the white people were being served by the locals. K was very understanding of my discomfort and was educated on the issues that such volunteering brought up. Yet, K was just a soldier in an army whose captains probably think they are fighting the good fight. Instead, they are killing off any hope of my country being able to rise on its own merits, rather than sink further due to the white people and their tendency to believe their imposition (or should I say invasion or imperialism?) is somehow saving us. There were three white volunteers [who] had been a part of the program for weeks and would stay for weeks after me. I would like to focus on only one of them from my own institution in the United States. Let us call her C for the sake of convenience. How desperately she wanted to bond with me at first, until I brought up race and she became focused on defending herself. She had no reason to because she had all the power. She acted unaware of this and just asserted it till I felt the need to be silent. But, I still could not help myself and tried to stand up for my people and educate her.

I had many heated debates in the one day I was with this girl from mid-western America about race, with her throwing every colour-blind microaggression in the book at me. As a social work major, this was almost laughable because we so often study such conversations and their repercussions. It was clear that when C listened to me explain the way things really were for people of colour she did not like what she was hearing. So, every time she disagreed with what I said, she would lift up her hand and indicate that I should stop talking . She would proceed to talk over me and state her own beliefs on topics she could never understand due to the colour of her skin. I would stop talking when she interrupted me knowing my efforts were of no avail. I had walked into this situation assuming that the white people I met on this trip would understand their privilege because hasn’t the world changed enough for that? I now know it hasn’t. C was clear that racism is not real anymore, black people inflict their problems on themselves, and white people are the victims in this whole situation. All the while, young children passed by begging for photos with this woman who looked like an angel to them with her blonde hair and piercing green eyes. She seemed excited about being worshipped but would try to shrug it off in front of me. She was proud of herself for “coming to help kids out India” and clearly expected me to commend her for this. I felt suffocated by her sense of entitlement. I could barely swallow the crepes and Nutella that the staff had prepared that day for lunch to accommodate their white guests. So, I found myself constantly meditating instead and escaping her ugliness by concentrating on the beauty of the Himalayas. No doubt, as soon as I landed in Dharamshala earlier that day I was sure that heaven was on earth and that this was it. I found myself reaching mental states that I did not know would be possible this soon, all in the 48 hours I was there. On the second day, which was the Sunday right before my volunteer work at the school started, I spent a whole day with K, the program coordinator who had arrived from Costa Rica. She was educated on the power dynamics that existed but pursued this line of work anyway, and I found myself somehow respecting her despite this. Perhaps it is because she was the only person on this trip who listened to me and validated me. I can only hope that after I left she expressed some of these sentiments to C instead of continuing to enable her through silence. After all, silence is racism. I also hope she uses my feedback to rectify the dire mistake the program makes. The biggest blunder being that they do not ensure participants are educated about the distinct history of colonialism in countries like India that only continues due to their involvement. As Ivan Illich elucidates, this knowledge has not really stopped white people from doing what they do, but it has forced them to think twice about how messed up the situation is and their placement in all of it.

While this was all happening at Dharamsala, one of the northernmost points in the country, a close family member was ailing in my native state of Tamil Nadu. My father was with him in this southernmost state, so it was a long way off. I made the decision on Sunday night to leave. I knew that once I met the children everything could change as it has on past volunteer trips. This time was different though. This time there was no hope whatsoever because the element of white supremacy was all-pervasive as it tends to be. I found myself in tears so often in the first 24 hours of my trip, and would have been miserable and scarred had I stayed. So, I made the decision to be with my family during this difficult time and left for the south on a morning flight the day after. My father and mother did not think twice about the weight that all these costs bore on us, because that is not our culture. And that is what always makes all the difference – we value happiness over money, regardless of whether we have the latter or not. Life is too short to be unhappy during the times that it can be avoided. I had finally come home to India and could not let anyone or anything ruin the safety of being surrounded by my ancient vibrant collectivistic culture. I am aware that no one else can make me feel something. Only I have power over my own feelings, and sometimes we give that power to other people without realising it. The nature of white supremacy is to try (and usually succeed) in annexing that power from people of colour. This whole experience was supposed to be about volunteers teaching as well as learning. When other white people in power are informed about the problematic nature of people like C, they usually claim her ignorance will be abated through this “learning experience”. Overall, it is my sincere desire that Program X and other organisations like it are shut down. To hell with their good intentions. The truth is on my side. The motto of my country, after all, is satyameva jayate. The truth alone will triumph.

In conclusion, there are some key questions that come to mind. Buddha preached compassion without limits, but where is the compassion of white people? For how long will their “learning experiences” come at the cost of oppressing and silencing people of colour? When will white people start standing up for people of colour and educating their brothers and sisters on the consequences of their continued invasion into coloured spaces? And, how can people of colour empower themselves in a world that continues to be suffocated by whiteness? Also, I could feed ten villages with the money that was wasted on this trip. So, where can I get my refund?



STEP Reflection

My STEP Signature Project was doing undergraduate research in Dr. Laura Schmidt’s Sports Rehabilitation and Recovery lab. In the lab, I helped analyze data and helped some with data collection. My area was more focused on articular cartilage defects and I got to present a poster at the Denman Research Forum on the influence of defect location on sagitt al plane gait mechanics in individuals with knee articular cartilage defect.


Through my STEP Signature Project, I learned a lot about what I want to do with my career and my role that I can have in research. In respect to what I want to do with my career, I learned that I actually don’t want to be a full-time researcher. The experience was amazing, and I am still helping out in the lab today and plan to continue in the future, but it showed me that it might not be the only thing for me. I learned that I can help out with research on the side in the future, which would be neat, while working a different job full-time too.


My view of the world that changed through my STEP Project was how incredibly important research really is to the world. I got to learn the ins and outs of what goes on behind the scenes. I learned how to properly run a research study and the importance of always publishing your results, whether significant or not, so that people have the information out there to look at and then they can possibly take another angle at a particular research question.


Through my STEP Signature Project, I got the opportunity to work with multiple awesome graduate students, as well as Dr. Schmidt in the lab. They all helped me learn the process that goes along with research and were some of the nicest people that I’ve ever met. They showed me the importance of research and made it an enjoyable experience to come into the lab and get to work. These relationships made me enjoy research and helped me grow as a person and researcher in the lab. They helped teach me how important research is to everyone and how big of a role it plays in society, including the field of Physical Therapy, which is what I plan on going into.


Another major part of my STEP Signature Project that helped change me was the process of preparing for the Denman Research Forum. This whole process helped me become both a better researcher and presenter. In preparation for the forum, I had to remain organized and do a lot of literature review in an effort to explain what the research we did was showing and why it was important. It helped teach me the whole process that is involved within research and how it is not all just data collection and analysis. There is a lot that goes into any type of research and being a part of that process is really eye-opening in my opinion and from my personal experience.


Probably the biggest impact from my STEP Project that led to my transformation would have to be through the relationships that I made. I got to meet amazing people in all levels of learning, from Dr. Schmidt as a faculty member to graduate level students to fellow undergraduate students. These relationships helped me shape the way I look at research and made doing the research more fun. They all helped me continue to learn and grow through research.


The changes that I experienced are very valuable for many reasons. I went into this project already thinking that I didn’t see myself doing a lot of research in the future but wanted to experience it and learn from it and that is what I did. At the end of the day, I still want to be a full-time Physical Therapist, but I have much more interest in research now than I ever did before. I am thinking about having a research focus in Physical Therapy school, which is something I never would have seen before. It also will help me in my future career as a Physical Therapist by making me more interested in research and more likely to keep up on all of the new research findings that could impact how I do therapy and work with patients. The whole experience is very directly correlated with what I want to do with my career and led to me being more interested and wanting to at least somewhat stay involved with research and all of the new findings.

Research Experience in Cancer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital

I had never saw myself working in a wet lab. When I started looking for labs to work in, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was looking for in doing research. I just knew that I wanted to be able to apply what I’ve learned in my class to apply it in a real-world setting. I also at that point was interested in doing research to improve treatments or find treatments for existing illnesses. I was pretty much interested in anything and everything so I stated reaching out to many professors and researchers in the Columbus area in hopes of entering a lab. The first researcher to get back to me was Dr. Chang who has a lab in the Nationwide Research Institute Center of Cancer and Blood Diseases. I accepted the position as an undergraduate research student. I’ve learned a lot since last year; about myself and about cancer. My project was based on testing a treatment with a drug by the name of Rocaglamide and Didismethylrocaglamide on Malignant Peripheral Nerve Sheath Tumor cells and Benign Meningioma cells.

I started out very clueless about what research entailed. I found quickly that it was what you make of it and it’s a process you must keep improving yourself and continually keep refining your techniques. It’s a process you must always challenge yourself to get better at even if you know a protocol to an experiment step-by step. You have to constantly review and learn from your protocols to get better. I also learned to be patient in that when my experiments would fail, I learned to retrace my steps and find what was wrong. My creativity was tested. In finding what was wrong, I had to think about how I could improve or wen I was lead to a dead end, I had to think about other options I could try. Working in Dr. Chang’s lab, I had to learn to ask questions carefully and be proactive of everything that could go wrong in my own experiments when observing the more senior members do experiments in lab.

At the end of the semester, I had to present at the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum. It was honestly very scary. Presenting has never been my strongest area. It makes me nervous because I’m afraid I’ll get something wrong. Presenting at the Denman was overwhelming but definitely a worthwhile experience. I learned about ways I can feel more prepared in presenting. I enjoyed seeing how hard my friends have worked. I also enjoyed sharing about my research because it felt like a long school project that I worked very hard on.

As a student researcher, it was easy for me to get caught up in the menial tasks and the experiments that I did daily. Putting the poster together, I saw the larger picture of what I was doing. I saw that it was important to stay grounded to why I’m doing what I do. To eventually treat patients. I saw this in action as I went to more tumor boards at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. I saw how research translated to the clinic with treatment of patients. How research helped characterize and plan treatments for patients. I am continuing to work in my research lab for the rest of my undergraduate career at Ohio State.

Along with introducing me to research, being in the lab has allowed me to narrow down my career goals. I am excited to continue my career in medicine. I want to continue to do research to improve patient outcomes.

STEP Reflection: Senior Thesis

1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.

My STEP Signature Project entailed working towards completion of my senior thesis. The thesis was focused on investigating behavioral preferences in children ages 9-10 and comparing these trends with household factors. This was an independent study that used both original experimental and survey data that were studied through regression analysis..

2. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project? Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.

One major thing that I learned in this project was that a PhD in economics is not my next step. Although I love behavioral research and discovering why people make the decisions that they do, I would like to have more of an impact in my career that I don’t feel research alone will provide. For this reason, I would like to pursue social science research in a non-profit or civil service setting where my findings and results could be used to reconstruct benefit systems or organizations that directly assist marginalized citizens.

I also began to recognize more deeply how the conditions we grow in are direct factors of the path we take in life. This has made me more passionate about revitalizing our school systems such that children have individualized attention and adequate nutrition. For this reason, I would like to pursue involvement in local or state public policy or office within the next ten years.

3. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you? Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing your STEP Signature Project that led to this change/transformation.

Conducting research with human subjects can be pedantic due to the regulations set by the Institutional Review Board. Research with children is particularly tricky because they are considered “at-risk”. To participate in the study, the children’s parents had several forms to fill out. While a majority of the parents in wealthier school districts had a good turnout for signed forms, the lesser resourced schools were far more scarce. This led me to think about what representation these children have to access resources. If their parents are either unable or unwilling to sign a form for a small study, could there be necessities or other programs these children do not have access to? This is something that I care deeply about and would like to ensure is rectified.

Furthermore, the results of my study also had an impact. While I found little evidence of differences between cohorts for risk or social preferences, I did find that motivations to increase payoff in games were statistically significant with mother’s education. In the study, I used mother’s education as a proxy for household income and general socioeconomic status, as it correlated significantly with other socioeconomic variables. So this finding generally suggests that affluent children in the fourth grade are generally more concerned with increasing payoff than their peers. These results really made me think about the prominence of financial wellness as a matter of urgency. Are children from wealthier families genetically predisposed to think about payoffs or did they learn this from their parents. I believe the true way to investigate this is by researching younger children.

The results of my study also played a major role because they made me discover that while I like research, there was little I contributed to actually solving the issues in question. It made me realize how young  I truly am and how many years I have left to make real change in this world. This paper will not be published in a major economic journal, but very few, if any, undergraduates do have that opportunity. The planning and motivations of this project allowed me to see my potential, while the results left me wanting to redirect those efforts in the future.

4. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.

As previously mentioned, this experience was one of the greatest factors in redefining  my career goals. While throughout my undergraduate career I wanted to pursue a PhD in Economics, I now want to shift my focus to law and civil service. I want to make a change and contribute to society in the six years that would otherwise be spent taking classes and doing narrow research. I am now taking steps to develop a platform and gain experience in other ways.

In August of 2018, I will begin a Master’s in Applied Mathematics at Ohio University. During that time, I will be preparing myself physically and academically for an application to become and Air Force officer. As a commissioned officer, I would like to begin as a behavioral or analytical scientist with a focus on promoting efficiency and benefits to other airmen. After serving for a few years, my next step would be applying to become a Judge Advocate General with a focus on international law. I feel that in this path I can serve the people that have allowed me to develop, while also honing my skills to better prepare for my time after the Air Force. However, I never would have realized this if not for the time I took to complete my thesis and the resources the STEP Program provided that allowed me to do so.

STEP Reflection

I worked under Dr. Guatelli-Steinberg and Dr. John Hunter in Newark and Columbus on dental anthropology research. Under their guidance, I gained the experience of what a career in research might include.
While completing my STEP project, I realized the career path I was on was incorrect. I enjoyed the process of researching so much more than the many hundred hours I spent shadowing dentists.
What led to my change of heart cannot all be linked to my STEP project; however, it was during the time I spent completing it when it occurred. In combination with my dental school application, shadowing, working, and volunteering I made this realization. In all honesty, the sheer overwhelming amount of time that I spent organizing activities into my daily life made it very difficult for me to find the time to actually reflect on why I was doing the things I was doing. I questioned why I enjoyed my time spent researching when the time I spent shadowing should have been supreme as it was my ultimate career goal.
This change is very relevant to me because it has shaped my life path whether it be in the sense of career, family, and otherwise. Choosing to spend all of my time relative to the dreams I have is an incredibly important ideology that can be easily forgotten. Though dreams require a great deal of hard work, I don’t ever plan to find myself lost in the grunt work wandering why I am where I am.

STEP Reflection

STEP Reflection Prompts


Name: Nicholas Craven

Type of Project: Undergraduate Research


  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.

My STEP project involved conducting research in Dr. Wood’s protein lab. Different techniques that I frequently utilized were buffer creation, cell culturing, and protein expression.


  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project? Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.

I think I learned the most about myself in a professional sense. I learned that I really love the flexibility working in a lab entails. Also I found that problem solving skills are by the most important because a lot of working on your own project is figuring out what you think is best with little guidance. And a good educated guess saves a lot of time then wild guesses. I also learned the difficulties that I’m going to face while doing research, and how I’m going to have to overcome those to be an effective researcher. For instance, preparation is incredibly important because otherwise it can be very easy to not stick to a schedule and that makes the project tend to drag out much longer than intended. Finally, I also learned the importance of organization. With so much going on at once, being incredibly organized is crucial so you can quickly get the information you need to continue to make effective progress.

  1. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you? Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing your STEP Signature Project that led to this change/transformation.

I think I learned the most by tackling this project alone. While working more directly with a graduate researcher like I have in the past, you always have someone else to make the final decision on important problems. Without someone like that, I was forced to face the issues myself and use all of the resources available to me to come up with what I thought was a manageable solution.

Also, talking a lot with the other people in the lab was very helpful. Seeing different methods people employed in their research gave me a lot of good ideas for how I would approach my own work. I also got to learn about others projects and what parts of graduate school I should be looking forwards to and which parts I need to more heavily prepare for.

One of my biggest concerns in the coming future is finding which graduate school that would be the best fit for me. Because of this, having lots of people around who had already gone through that experience was very helpful. I learned about what to look for in schools that would be a good fit, as well as all the different fields that are available to do research in in my field.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.

Academically, this transformation and learning has significantly helped me feel more prepared for the coming graduate school experience. I have always known that I wanted to move on to it, but until this project didn’t know fully what that would entail. Being around so many people to look up to and learn from was very impactful on my upcoming decisions and hopefully will lead to me making the best decision possible. Armed with this information I hope will significantly impact my future success in research.

STEP Reflection – Undergraduate Research Focusing on Coral Adaption and Acclimatization to Global Change

For my STEP signature project, I participated in undergraduate research, as a lab assistant for Dr. Grottoli’s Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry Laboratory.  Her lab focuses coral adaption and acclimation to the rise in seawater temperature and ocean acidification due to global climate change.  While her lab covers a large range of topics, looking at changes in the phenotype and genotype of the coral, I mainly worked on preparing samples for isotope testing.

This project was very insightful to the process behind the creation of knowledge and the scientific process.  Most of the science that I have done has been in labs, usually lasting about three hours, and has a predicted objective and outcome.  Another form of science that is familiar to many are scientifically published articles, a few pages that compresses years of research down to less than an hour to read.  The science done in this lab gave me an entirely different perspective.  I was only in this lab for a year, but while I was there, I learned how complicated the process of science really is.  It would take me three hours to turn about six samples of coral slurry into a host and algal sample.  This is only one step in the process of turning the collected samples into data, that could be analyzed and plotted.  Another step in this process was taking these small, metal tins with organic material inside, and folding them up so that their isotope composition could be processed by the mass spectrometer.  This rolling of tins, also was a very time-consuming process, and took about 15 to 20 minutes per tin.  Looking at this in a large scale, multiplying these processes by hundreds of samples, and this creates years of work.  The dedication to science that is needed for new knowledge to be created is tremendous and I am so proud of the people that I have met during this experience, including not only Dr. Grottoli, but her three graduate students, and many lab assistants.

One example of this unwavering dedication was a graduate student, Kerri.  She was working with a total organic carbon (TOC) machine to look at the organic carbon in different samples, but this machine often had many technical difficulties.  This would hinder her progress, but I never ceased to see her in the lab, running other tests, and being in a cheerful mood.  Dr. Gottoli once emphasized that in order to work in the scientific world, you must be able to keep your head down and continue working through all the mishaps, because there will be many throughout the long process of research.

There was also a lot of work that goes into research that is not thought about.  For example, many of the lab assistants and I spent hours on data entry.  Not only is there science that needs to be conducted, but the results need to be organized in a way that they can be easily found and analyzed.  One specific task that was assigned to the lab assistants was to organize different photographs of coral online into folders.  Each coral photo had a corresponding time period, time 1, 5, or 22, all indicating how many months that the coral samples were in treatment.  While it seems like a simple task, there were hundreds of photos and it took weeks to complete, even with multiple people.  Another seemingly basic task that most people do not consider when thinking about science, is the time it takes to clean and sterilize all the supplies.  Again, other lab assistants and I spent many hours cleaning glassware.  This process was very specific, as each piece of equipment had to be washed in three separate baths, dried, and then baked before it could be used.

Not only did I learn the many steps that go into research, I got to learn about the people doing the research.  As the reality of all the different steps and all the time that is necessary for research sets in, it seems like a daunting task that only superhumans are able to take on.  While this soaks in, I also realize that the people doing research are ordinary people outside of the lab, just like you and me.  Dr. Grottoli had lab meetings with only the lab assistants about once a month, and during these meetings, we talked about our lives, we were able to vent, we were able to joke.  These meetings made me see Dr. Grottoli as a mother, as a world traveler, instead of just a research professor.  This awareness that ordinary people can do extraordinary things given a problem to solve and the determination to find answers, has made me realize that I can do anything with the right mindset.  This first-hand account of not only the process of research, but also the people doing research, has given me a deeper appreciation for the scientific community.

Before this experience, I had never really thought about the research process in depth as in society there always seems to be a veil between scientist and non-scientists. Throughout my STEP experience, this veil was lifted.  Now that this barrier has been broken, I have a better understanding of all hard work that goes into the research that I use on a daily basis, for school and work alike.  This insight into how research works and is created also helps me in my professional life.  I am majoring in Environment, Economy, Development, and Sustainability, which connects science and applies it to business and different aspects of society.  With this undergraduate research experience, I have a better ability to use and understand science and apply it to non-scientific aspects of society.  Without this understanding, I would use scientific articles and knowledge, without fully understanding how evidence and theories were proven.

Picture 1: Dr. Grottoli’s lab members at her end of the year lab party.









Picture 2: I am in the process of rolling the tins mentioned above.



STEP Reflection

For my STEP project, I participated in undergraduate research at Ohio State’s Injury Biomechanics Research Center.  My project was to develop a custom MATLAB code that could create stress-strain curves and quantify material properties from dynamic structural tests of individual human ribs.  The next step in the project is to find predictors of material properties.

Over the course of the project, I have furthered my knowledge of the scientific process and learned how to drive a research and problem solving effort.  Through this project I have learned a great deal of perseverance.  At almost every step of the project, I have encountered at least one issue that required me to implement and hone my problem solving skills.  This process has greatly increased my ability not only to problem solve, but to think critically.  This critical thinking ability has applied to both others and myself, and the ability to do this is critical for pursuing science and reasoning what the proper course of action is.  This transformation and growth was a key part of my STEP experience.

When developing a computer code, there is much trial and error, and subsequent problem solving.  In order to write a code that would take the data we had obtained and output the stress-strain curves and model we desired, there were many different steps of data processing and manipulation needed.  Once one portion of the data was formatted and processed in an appropriate manner, the next section needed to be formatted and processed.  There was a great deal of trial and error in each step and significant problem solving that, through each step, honed my skills and strengthened my perseverance.

Throughout the entire process I gained a higher appreciation for the scientific process and expanded my knowledge of how to best pursue it for this process.  Throughout the duration of the project, I had the chance to develop relationships with several primary investigators in the Injury Biomechanics Research Center.  From them, I was able to learn a great deal about how to properly investigate, interpret and analyze data.  Beyond that, I also learned how to think critically and learned to check and double-check my work.  I have learned that this is very important to ensure that each step makes sense.

Additionally, I had the opportunity to present my project at the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum.  Through this experience, I was afforded the opportunity to speak to many different people about my research.  I spoke to a great variety of people, ranging from high school students to experts in biomechanics.  This was a great opportunity because an important part of science is explaining your work to others and helping them understand why your work is important.  This Forum helped me practice those skills and learn how to present my work.

This STEP project will me help as I pursue a career in medicine.  Research is an important part of medicine and learning how to properly conduct and present research early will certainly benefit me throughout my career.  The relationships I have formed through my project will help me as I apply to medical school and continue to pursue that career.  The skills I have learned, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and presentation will be further advantageous throughout my life.

Hawaii Coral Reef Research Experience

For my STEP signature project, I traveled to O’ahu, Hawaii to participate in a coral reef field study. For four weeks, I worked as a research assistant for the Grottoli lab group (OSU School of Earth Sciences) and helped to complete a 3-year long study of the affects that increasing oceanic temperature and pH have on coral reef populations. During this time, we took measurements of photosynthesis, respiration, and feeding rates of dozens of coral fragments that had been exposed to different pH and temperature conditions for extended periods of time.

This experience taught me how to apply prior knowledge to real-world problems. I began to make connections that I hadn’t before and to draw conclusions from past lectures that I had originally memorized and never given another thought. These skills and new-found love of learning have accompanied me into a new semester. I find myself making even more of these connections, between classes and even with my past research experience. I go to class with a determination that I’ve never experienced.

Another thing that this experience has taught me is that research is hard. I was able to witness first-hand how difficult it is to pursue a PhD. I was shocked by the number of unpaid, unacknowledged hours that are spent simply trying to answer a question. Although it is difficult, I can see how it can also be rewarding. We as a society wouldn’t have gotten very far without the almost insane determination of our researchers.

I feel lucky to know a few of those crazy researchers. Throughout the trip, it was humbling to realize that I was surrounded by remarkable people. These people had the work ethic, leadership skills, and dedication needed to complete such a massive project. I am so grateful that I was able to learn from them.

In the future, this project will aid me in my vet school application, my knowledge of research processes, and in future career/learning exploits. Also, its a pretty awesome conversation starter.

STEP Signature Project: SBS-Microbial, Infection & Immunity lab

The STEP Signature Project I chose to do this past semester was in the research lab I have been working in over the summer. The main goal of this research project is to determine if vitamin D modulates IL-34 and inflammatory cytokine responses in the CNS. In a larger context, we (the research lab) are investigating if early life vitamin D plays a role in the susceptibility of Multiple Sclerosis.

While I was undergoing my STEP Signature Project, I was able to get a better aspect of what medical research looked like. As a student exploring options in medicine, it was an interesting and fun experience working in the lab. I have shadowed doctors and worked in a clinic before, but I’ve always wondered what happens behind the scenes, such as research on animals, lab work, etc.. In my research project, I was able to experience all that and much more. One of my favorite tasks was to remove brains out of mice, an experience I will never forget. Completing the STEP Signature Project has opened a new door for me after graduation. It is definitely an option I could see myself pursuing.

As a Neuroscience major, I am constantly learning about the brain, many different diseases, and how they affect us. However, I don’t enjoy being stuck in a classroom all the time. The most convenient part of this whole experience while working in a research lab was the flexibility. I was able to work around my schedule and go in whenever I want. This didn’t put any pressure on me and allowed me to schedule things I needed to complete more easily.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking a break from class and going to the lab, especially because it is such a different environment. My lab had many hands-on components of the project and it has helped me learn better than just listening to a lecture. During my time in the lab, I was exposed to a wide variety of skills. To list just a few, RNA/rtPCR, Animal Husbandry, Tissue preparation, Data Analysis, ELISA, and cell culture. The skills I’ve learned are not only important for this specific research lab but are easily applicable to other research labs.

The relationships I have made while working in a research lab are tremendously helpful. I was able to make new friends, not only with some of the undergraduates but also the graduate students and the post-docs. Having a close connection with the other researchers could potentially open new doors for me in other research labs, where I can continue and apply the skills I’ve gained.

One of my main goals as I first started college was to work in a research lab. I’ve always wanted the hands-on experience because it is something I enjoy and helps me learn well. I dream about being a neurosurgeon or a plastic surgeon but that is way far ahead in the future. However, my STEP Signature Project gave me a slight taste of what it felt like. Although it’s not nearly the same as an actual neurosurgeon, there were times where I felt like I was. Removing the entire brain or dissecting the hippocampus out of a tiny, day-old mice gave me the adrenaline rush many that people seek for. I was conducting research on a deadly disease and at the same time, I was always excited and never bored doing it. I believe that this STEP opportunity gave me something very valuable because I learned that this is something I very much enjoy doing, expanded my knowledge in the field, and a potential career path.