STEP Undergraduate Research Experience-Ellen DeWitt


My name is Ellen DeWitt and I am now a 3rd year CIS major with a math minor. This past summer I completed my STEP Signature Project as an undergraduate research assistant in Gunther Labs on Project SWEAT here at OSU.

While my academic pursuits have been in STEM fields  I have always had a desire to pursue some form of a career and/or higher education in public health and community wellness. At the same time I have also had a strong desire to take part in some form of research while here at OSU. This combination of interests and a desire to gain research experience lead to me applying to be an undergraduate research assistant for Project SWEAT.

This research project, lead by a PhD candidate Laura Hopkins here at OSU in Gunther Lab, stuck out to me when I applied because of its connections between technical skills I learned in the classroom and community research. The project was based on looking into if Columbus City School Children were experiencing a decline in health over the summer, and if so what were the causes of this decline. As a research assistant I was involved in the recruitment of families, setting up and attending data collections with the participant families, follow-ups and data management and entry.

While the tasks of the project may seem simple on the surface the experiences I gained from the work and the people I was with were priceless.

The project itself though required more work than I could have imagined putting in at the beginning. As it was unpaid I also worked at the RPAC as a lifeguard and due to the project requiring me and my sub-team of research assistants to meet with families during the day and on weekends I worked the opening shift. Meaning I woke up at 4:30am Monday-Saturday to work the open shift at the RPAC until 9-11am. I then would leave the RPAC and walk to Campbell (the building that houses Gunther Lab and the Projects offices). Once there if we were in a recruitment/collection phase I would pick up materials if needed and then get my car and pick up teammates so that we could drive to participant homes/site schools for data collection visits. These visits took 1-2 hours each and we could have up to three visits a day. On off days I often helped out other teams that were short a person and needed an extra person or I was making reminder phone calls and picking up equipment left with the family. During non data collection times I was in the office as part of the data management team and would be checking data for completion, de-identifying participant data, and entering said data into our database. I also worked on two URO Summer Research Fellows projects who were lead undergrads in the lab.

Even though the days were long and taxing I found myself enjoying every second of the experience. So much so that I would often volunteer to assist on extra projects to gain even more experience and learn more about the nuts and bolts of Project SWEAT. I was drawn in by the families I met as we met with them multiple times over the summer I got to know them on a more personal level. This more intimate relationship with them and their situations (as most families we worked with lived at or well below the poverty line) made me that much more convinced about the project and how its results could change these peoples lives. And I wanted that change for them. I wanted to be able to help find the problems and develop solutions in these communities that are a mere 15 minute drive from campus.

This project also exposed me to the inequalities and lack of opportunities that many people face here in my own community. And it wasn’t that I was unaware that these inequalities existed, but more that it was easier to ignore the problem rather than finding a solution to it. But when you know these families and see the lack of resources in the schools and the community it showed me why community research projects such as this one need to be done and the value that they can have in the communities they take place in.

It allowed me to gain experience into how a research project runs from applying for grants, to recruiting volunteers and participants, to working with participants on an individual and extensive basis to make sure all aspects of data collection are completes. It exposed me to the stumbling blocks that can occur and all of the hard work and unplanned time that needs to be put it. It showed me everything that I was able to develop a stronger work ethic, the need to strive for perfection and to not give up on a project when it becomes difficult.

In summary, my STEP project as a research assistant for Project SWEAT allowed me to see that both research and Public Health are genuine passions of mine that I want to and will continue to pursue. It has made what at the beginning of the summer was a pipeline dream of pursuing an MPH become something that can be attained through continued effort and education.

STEP Reflection

My STEP project included working on a few different projects in the College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology. These projects involved investigating racial disparities and biological mechanisms that exist within endometrial cancer.

Throughout my work on these studies, I have developed many tangible skills. Two of these come from specific programs such as SEER and SAS. Having the knowledge to form new SEER sessions is a great skill primarily because of the vast information contained within SEER. It has cancer incidence and treatment data going back over 40 years, so it has significant epidemiological value. I’m also far more familiar with SAS now. SAS can take a data set, clean it, and perform various types of statistical

analyses with it. At we have been working on many projects within SAS, I have begun to pick up more coding skills. As someone who came into research with no coding experience whatsoever, I’m glad I have at least a decent grip on how it works now. These new skills have had a huge impact on how I think about and appreciate research. I now know just how much work goes into each advancement.

This summer, my research mentor, Dr. Ashley Felix, and I have been working on a retrospective population-based study using the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database. This analysis sought to investigate whether varying histological types of endometrial cancer (EC) would cause an increased risk of developing a secondary primary carcinoma (SPC) after the initial EC diagnosis. This relationship has yet to be defined or examined throughout previous studies on the risks of SPCs associated with primary EC. SEER a source of population-based cancer information provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). For the current analysis the SEER 9 registries were used, which include Atlanta, Connecticut, Detroit, Hawaii, Iowa, New Mexico, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle-Puget Sound, and Utah, we decided to include the 30-year span of 1983-2013 for our analysis.

In order to get the data needed for this analysis, various steps of selection criteria needed to be sorted through. Dr. Felix and I created two types of sessions, MP-SIR sessions as well as case studies. MP-SIR sessions allowed us to output the increased risk of developing a SPC by histology and latency period after initial EC diagnosis. These increased risks were evaluated in the form of standardized incidence ratios (SIRs). We also evaluated the risk of SPCs at many different sites. This gave us the data needed to determine which histological subtypes may have an impact on SPCs in different areas. The SIRs were calculated in SEER through the use of general population cancer incidence rates adjusted for race and age. The second session, called a case study, allowed us to evaluate more details about the women who developed SPCs. This case study listed all patients’ first primary cancer (EC), second primary cancer, surgical and radiation therapy, current vital status, histological subtype, family income, age, race, education, and insurance. This data was then input into an excel database. From there, it was output into SAS, a data analytics program, which would assist us in defining our patient population.

During this process in SAS, I was continuously working on the manuscript for the paper. As we are still working on the paper, I am able to write about the data was we receive it from SAS and SEER. Prior to starting the analysis, I complied a literature review of the studies that have already touched on this subject of SPC risk. This review included finding the papers of interest, reading and extracting data from them, and trying to find what the scientific consensus is between them. The information from these articles will be included in the discussion section of our paper, so it was important to draw out the import ideas and summarize them. In addition, I needed to learn more about the biology involved with EC. Specifically while talking about various subtypes, they are very different on the cellular level. They are different because they are caused by varying risk factors that can be hormonal, environmental, or genetic. In order to make sense of our analysis and write about it, it was important for me to understand the biological differences between these subtypes. As our first SEER analysis is coming to a close, we have begun working on a few other analyses with some gynecological oncology fellows. These span not only endometrial cancer but also ovarian and cervical cancer.

While this has been the primary project we have been working on, I have also been working on elements for a few other projects. One example is for a study on the receipt of adjuvant therapy in EC treatment. Because it is widely observed and agreed upon that black women receive surgical treatment of their EC less often that white women, it’s also important to investigate the difference in receipt of adjuvant therapy, that being radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy, between black and white women after surgery. I also conducted a literature review on this topic. This was important, again, to understand what knowledge the scientific community already has on this topic. Also, much earlier this summer we were able to wrap up a study we had been working on for almost a year. That study was on intraluminal tumor cell presence within fallopian tubes or fimbriae of women with EC, and the prognostic significance of such presence. We found that ITLC presence as associated with higher risk for EC-specific mortality and risk of recurrence. Currently, we are trying to work with other institutions to combine data on this subject. In order to do this, I am assisting Dr. Felix in applying for an NCI RO3 grant.

As my goal for the future is to become a physician scientist, all of my experiences this summer have been invaluable contributions to that goal. While going through medical school, I hope to continue to do research. All of the skills I have will make me more qualified to do so, and they give me a jumping off point to learn more advanced skills. In addition, they’ll help me to balance my research with my classwork during that phase of my life. Once I get into my career, I hope to be doing studies of my own, and Dr. Felix has shown me different ways to look at current medical issues and come up with ways to investigate the unknown.

Undergraduate Research-STEP

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. 

This summer I continued to work in a Biochemistry and Pharmacology research lab, but I was able to do research full time. While initially I was looking at traumatic brain injury varicosities in the Amygdala, I switched over to looking at myelin changes in the grey matter of the amygdala and cerebral cortex. This change enabled me to move forward at a better pace with my research. I also was able to continue volunteering at many of the institutions I volunteer at year round, because I was able to stay in Columbus.

  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

I had volunteered at this research lab for 2 semesters at the start of the semester, and I was expecting to continue in the same way that I had been doing before, but with more time to do more experiments. While I was a little anxious in the beginning about how I would do, and whether my project would be large enough for me to work on for the whole summer I was still excited. I learned right from the get go that it was ok to be nervous about a novel situation. Stepping out of my comfort zone helped me grow as a person, and taught me many important skills.

Primarily I learned the importance of self motivation. When I worked in the lab over the semester, I didn’t have much time. Therefore, when I did go into the lab I worked with my supervisor and she told me what I needed to do and I did it. Then when it changed to being at research the whole day, I had to learn to ration out my own time and really be creative and see where my project was going to go. I also learned the importance of trouble shooting. Doing a procedure means nothing if you don’t understand what is going on, because then if problems occur you are stuck. Finally, I learned the importance of having the confidence to ask a question even if it may seem simple. Going into the summer, I was scared that if I were to ask a question that seemed to simple I would seem uneducated. Quickly I learned that is not the case. If you are in the correct environment the people around you will want you to succeed, and will understand that you are at a different level in training. It is important to ask questions early on rather than trying to figure everything out yourself and causing more harm than good.

  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?

One of the major things that I had to accept when I saw the whole research process, is the time it takes to get good results, and the accuracy needed. For instance, when doing immunofluorescent staining, I could have used good sections, that were properly profused and sliced, but if I even made a mistake on one step of the staining, it is very possible that I wouldn’t see anything on the microscope and I would have to start over. With practice I realized that the best thing to do is to take it slow and have patience because in the long run that is what will pay off.

I also had an experience being given much more responsibility when when one of lab members was gone for a week and I had to fill her role. While I knew the procedures I had to be doing, I hadn’t had the time before to go through the whole process and do everything by myself. Especially when it came to genotyping, something that is very precise, I was nervous to do it on my own and help someone else learn at the same time. What I learned about myself in that situation though, is that I am able to step up to the task if I have confidence myself and ask questions when necessary. I would ask questions to troubleshoot problems that I had no explanation for and those would lead to more questions that I would then educate myself on. I learned that to improve in research I would have to read many articles, and research studies, and protocols and build my own knowledge of how the scientific world is structured so that I would be able to find my place in it without getting too lost. This reading and self education was an extremely valuable tool in reducing any anxiety I had about my research position.

Finally, I learned that it is ok to admit that the results aren’t going anywhere, or aren’t as important as you previously thought they were, and then accordingly change paths. In this regards, I chose to switch my major time commitments to a new project when an opportunity for me arose to take control of a project that I already new much about and could work on from start to finish. When I felt ownership of that project my whole outlook on my research changed. I was more excited and I felt that I could plan what I needed to do day by day and work hard to do it. Then when presenting my work at the Undergraduate Fall Forum, I could take ownership of all the work I had done. This is probably not something I could have done had I stuck with the original project I wasn’t as passionate about.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

Understanding how full time research works, has been instrumental in understanding the scientific method. You learn about it in class you hear about it in articles, but you don’t really appreciate how much hard work and time goes into finding results until you do it yourself. Now I know that if I am to do research for the rest of college, or research in medical school, I have work on something I am passionate about, even if it means dropping something else, or else I will not have the drive to continue. The increase in confidence to step out of my comfort zone that research has given me is also invaluable. Moving forward I will continue to combat anxiousness or fear with preparation and realization that people have been through this before and it is ok to ask questions. Finally, I will continue to build on the relationships and connections I have made with people currently in my lab, and those that have moved on to other stages of their life. Because of the help of STEP I have a priceless experience to support my medical school applications, and that will help me in my preparation for life in the scientific field in general.

STEP undergraduate research reflection

Justin Richards

Type of Project: Undergraduate Research

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

My STEP project was focused on working as an undergraduate researcher/taking over a research project for the spinal therapeutics lab of Dr. Devina Purmessur. The focus was on immunopathological interactions within the intervertebral disc as they relate to lower back pain and degradation.


  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

I would say overall just the vast amount of work and human effort that goes into the process of benefitting the greater good was impressive. The idea of critical analysis and problem solving was instilled in me. It has always been relayed the long hours and frustrations associated with science, however to see first hand the multiple hours that one can spend in one day, one week, one month, one year just to end up being wrong. Furthermore the perseverance that I saw with my lab mates, and found in myself, to keep moving forward with our projects hoping that any day could be the day you get the one bit of data that leads you to the next, to the next, and eventually into therapeutic application that will help someone else was incredible. My desired profession is orthopedic surgery and to see first hand the behind the scene work that goes into making what we are able to do is nothing short of extraordinary. It affirmed my love for the field and made me take notice of how incredible we can be as a unified group.

  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?

One of the most telling lessons that I learned was the idea of critical analysis. Every person, every experience, every thing has something to teach you. In research every day was going to test your mental fortitude, you were going to not get the results you were looking for. In one specific instance of running PCR I had spent two months running preliminary rounds to ensure a housekeeping normalization for inherently low expressing human cells, in the end after all that work two large plates that took 7 hours all together came back blank. What was the true telling experience however was sitting down and saying ok why did this happen, we ended up being able to isolate the reasoning behind the blank and in fact realized something else entirely about our project that sparked further discussion and an even more profound discovery in explant culture. Research afforded me multiple opportunities to not only learn from failures but to realize, if you learn something its not a failure, and further it may be greater than what you had even originally intended.

One of the other truly profound ideas of research, is that any moment you could be presented with the opportunity to see something nobody in the history of mankind has. I work in a very understudied field as far as the particular hypothesis surrounding the pathway involved with disc degeneration, it is not very well understood. What makes this a challenge in its own right was that there is no precedent at time to what you are doing. You have to try everything and consider everything and in the end you may end up being flat wrong; having to go back to the drawing board entirely. I would spend constant hours sketching out ideas that were sparked and had countless instances of the puzzle pieces just not fitting altogether. In one instance however I was able to connect the dots and it changed the project in its entirety. All that took was a simple conversation after a “failed” experiment with a friend who had made mention of pH. It turned out when I dug deeper pH was largely relevant to the molecules associated with our pathway and with this correction we were able to see results that were leading us towards greater discoveries.

Lastly I would say writing pilot studies was one of the most effective way to develop my problem solving and critical thinking skills. When I would go into writing pilot studies, of which I did 3 in my time, you start with a blank canvas. This is simultaneously very exciting and very frustrating. You cannot lean so much on the knowledge of those around you in the lab however it is this reason it is exciting. You have to think of every possible factor that may affect your results and at the same time try to eliminate them from the equation in order to learn anything truly profound about the variable in question. In one such study we were looking at the enzymatic degradation of tissue. This study took place in direct relation to the failed PCR project discussed prior. The problem was, it was know how to quantify this degradation but in an entirely different context. It had to be worked out how to make sure everything was controlled for, how this quantification method (colorimetric in nature) would be influenced by a different medium, whether explants would have the same effect without metabolic activity, and lastly our enzyme in question had to be dosed correctly with no precedent in literature as to how this tissue type would handle different doses. It was one of the most interesting puzzles I have ever been presented and one of the most rewarding to solve.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

This transformation is significant to my life for a multitude of reasons. For one thing I want to be an orthopedic surgeon and interacting with surgeons day to day, the researchers who work with them to find best practices that can be implemented in day to day life was very preparative. On that note, classes at ohio state are great, you can learn a lot, but nothing teaches one better than seeing first hand how these things apply to the real world around us. I did not just learn statistics, I used statistics to pull interesting conclusions out of my data; I did not just learn about serine proteinases in a textbook, I studied one, found out how to stabilize the protein and deliver it to our target to see the effects and hopefully neutralize them. It was the ultimate adventure in adaptation of the classroom and I am immensely grateful for it.

STEP Undergraduate Research

My step signature project was undergraduate research in Smith Cardiovascular Research lab at Wexner Medical Center. Smith lab focuses on the role Beta II Spectrin, a cytoskeletal protein, plays in heart failure. During my time working in Smith lab over the summer, I was able to improve and perfect several biochemical laboratory techniques as well as learn new skills in the lab. I also was able to gain a better understanding of the research being performed. Along with research, I also was able to continue my role as a volunteer at Mt. Carmel West.


  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?



This summer definitely made me appreciate those with career fields in scientific research. It is incredible to see how much work goes into studying a biochemical pathway, how a drug effects certain parts of the body, and simply the patience that goes along with performing various laboratory techniques in general. There were times where I had to redo experiments over and over and over again until I achieved semi-acceptable results, or maybe we never got the results we were hoping for. However, it was all worth it when I did succeed. I was able to learn many new skills that I can use in lab during the school year. Being in lab over the summer allowed me to get the start I needed so that I can eventually have a project that I would be in charge of. This definitely help me achieve my goals of going to medical school and becoming a doctor.


  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?


I think I have transformed the most in the area of patience. There have been times where an entire day’s worth of work or more has gone to waste because I was not careful enough. For example, an inconclusive or contaminated western blot is a waste of two entire days in the lab and means that I must spend two more days re-running it. I learned how to take my time and minimize the mistakes I would make by being careful, not careless. Being in lab taught me how to use my time efficiently, especially since I was also taking classes and volunteering simultaneously.


Along with learning how to be a better student research assistant, I became extremely close with fellow members in lab. My research advisors became big role models in my life and was always willing to help me when I needed it. They helped older members of the lab tremendously with medical school applications and I know they will do the same thing for me as well when I apply. Building relationships with the people in my lab made this summer enjoyable. The students one year older in me that have been in lab much longer were phenomenal examples of what I strive to be after gaining over a year of experience in the lab. Also, everyone was extremely kind, patient, and helpful since I was still relatively new and still learning. Being in lab each day extremely improved my knowledge about the research I was performing. In fact, I am presenting a poster at the Davis Heart and Lung Institute Research Day in one month and I would not have been able to do so if I had not spent the summer in lab. My name was also put on one of our papers that is being reviewed for publication.


Another key aspect of my STEP signature project was discipline concerning money. The $2000 I received from STEP definitely taught me how to budget and spend money wisely. Over ¾ of the grant I received went towards living expenses like rent and utilities. This left me with about ¼ of the grant going towards food and travel expenses. I did not spend too much money on going out to eat, rather I would budget for groceries and cook meals so that the money would last the entire summer. There were definitely temptations to spend money extravagantly, especially at the beginning when the full $2000 was in my possession, however, I was able to ration the money usually on a weekly basis. This definitely prepared me for the transition from living in a dorm to living off campus where I have to go grocery shopping and cook my own meals.


  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?


My transformational experience this summer is valuable in my life because it is all builds up towards my goal of becoming a doctor one day. Being a contributing member in a biochemical research lab gives me a competitive edge compared to other medical school applicants. The main point is that this summer made me realize that I actually enjoy doing research and it is not just another thing to put on my resume. I love all of the people in my lab and I believe the research that we are doing will make a difference in the medical community. I learned many new skills and feel as though I contribute much more as a member of the research team because I put so much time into it this summer. My name will be published on a peer reviewed paper, I will be able to run my own project within the next year, and I will be presenting one of our experiments at the DHLRI Research Day and potentially the 2018 Denman. The STEP grant allowed me to be independent and responsible and was extremely influential for my future career in medicine.


STEP Undergraduate Research Project Reflection

Name: Karsen Kaple
Type of Project: Undergraduate Research – HIV/AIDS Policy Project

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

The primary focus of my STEP Signature Project was working as an Undergraduate Research Assistant in the College of Public Health to Dr. Tasleem Padamsee, PhD., on her HIV/AIDS Policy Project. This project focuses on HIV/AIDS policy in the United States and the United Kingdom and analyzes the successes, shortcoming, and current issues in this area of public policy. The Project is mostly based on over 200 original interviews conducted by Dr. Padamsee with policymakers from both nations.

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.

As a public health major, it is essential for me to step outside of my comfort zone in order to expand my perspective on some of the major issues facing global public health today. Prior to this project, I had a very narrow view on the current state of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Through this narrow viewpoint, I had believed that the majority of the work regarding the pandemic was over and that the issue had been largely resolved in developed nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom. After working on this project for some time, I now understand how HIV continues to affect different populations in these two nations, especially women and people of color. Comparing and contrasting the policies implemented in the two nations is also helpful to understand what types of policy changes are affective, which policy changes are not affective, and what work is still left to be done.

In addition to the research itself, I also experienced a tremendous amount of growth through living away from home in Columbus for the first time this summer. Learning how to juggle working full-time, completing my research, shopping for groceries, and spending time with friends and family. Learning how to budget – including allocating and properly distributing my STEP funding – was also a new challenge. After this summer, I feel much more confident in myself and more specifically in my abilities to live and work independently free from the cushions of home or a dorm fully-staffed with hall directors, resident advisors, and office assistants twenty-four hours each day. I feel much more comfortable transitioning from on-campus housing last year to off-campus housing this year.

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.

One of the main takeaways from my STEP Signature Project was the ability to work with and to establish a mentor/mentee relationship with an Ohio State University College of Public Health Faculty member. I struggled often during my freshman year of college trying to adjust to the size and culture of such a large university setting. One of my biggest regrets during this year was not developing a strong connection with any of my professors or Ohio State faculty members. Coming into my sophomore year, it was one of my goals to find a professor who I could learn from and could help steer me on the right path as graduate school approaches. As also a first generation student, finding this relationship was extremely essential to my academic and professional aspirations.

While working on my research, it was alarming to me to read about the current status of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in 2017. Specifically, it was alarming to learn about the many disparities that still exist across dimensions such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Prior to this project, I had a very surface-level understanding of the HIV/AIDS crisis and believed that most of the work was already done and that in most regards, the state of the pandemic was controlled. It was somewhat shocking to learn about how the pandemic is still disproportionately affecting minority communities in developed nations like the United States and the United Kingdom. These discoveries made me become more interested in the field of epidemiology and studying what causes disease in different populations. I now have a desire to pursue a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology.

Finally, living independently in Columbus for the first time in my life was the most transformative experience of my STEP Signature Project. Living on my own, I had to learn how to clean, cook, and commute without help from my parents or the safety and luxury of Ohio State housing to provide all of my needs. With this opportunity, I was able to not only grow and learn more about myself, I was also able to take time to reflect on my values, my life, and my future aspirations. I developed many new friendships and relationships that challenged me and forced me to step outside of my comfort zone so that I could learn to understand myself better and to live in my own truth.

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.

This has been absolutely essential to my personal and academic lives as well as my professional and future aspirations. Taking the time to reflect on my values and future goals this summer was essential to understanding where I wanted the trajectory of my life to lead me. My research project itself opened my eyes to a whole new interest – the field of epidemiology, a field in which I might now pursue a career in. I developed a strong mentor/mentee relationship with an OSU faculty member, a goal of mine for over two years. Thanks to my STEP Signature Project, I now believe that I have the confidence, the experience, and the skills to pursue a higher education in the field of public health.

STEP Reflection: Undergraduate Research

Name: B. Alexis Lower
Type of Project: Undergraduate Research

Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

My STEP Signature Project fell into the undergraduate research category. This past Summer I conducted research in the chemistry department in Dr. Olesik’s lab with the assistance of Celia Wang. The objective of my research project was to design nanofibrous mats that could be used to separate individual proteins in complex mixtures.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

While completing my STEP Signature Project, I realized the value of persistence. My initial project in the lab involved spotting amino acids onto nanofibrous mats of both a Nafion/PAN mixture and PAN. These spotted mats were then placed in a PEC chamber with a mobile phase and exposed to a current of 900 V – 1 kV. The mats were then removed from the chamber and allowed to dry for at least 24 hours. They were then sprayed with a ninhydrin solution (ninhydrin reacts with amines to produce a colored product). The mat was then placed in an oven at 110˚C for 10 min. When removed from the oven, the amino acids were, theoretically, supposed to show up as spots on the mat. Experimentally, however, the amino acids did not show up as anticipated. I also attempted to visualize the amino acids by adding a fluorescent dye into the PAN solution. Here, the amino acids were supposed to show up as black spots when viewed under UV light. This method also did not have the desired effect. In the end, my initial project had to be refined because the amino acids could not be properly visualized on PAN or Nafion/PAN mats with either fluorescence or ninhydrin spray. While my project had a number of challenges, I learned a lot about what goes into the research process and how the process is fluid. I also learned that even though scientific research doesn’t always work out as anticipated, you always learn something new through persistence.

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?

I learned to value persistence though my interactions with graduate students in the lab. One key aspect of my project that lead me to this transformation was the constant changes I had to be making to my research project. I had to keep making alterations to my project in order to attempt to visualize various amino acids. When one change did not work out I did not just throw my hands up in the air and scrap the project, I continued to make alterations, and even attempt to visualize using alternate means.

The other researchers in my lab also helped me learn the value of persistence. Celia, a fellow lab member, was a great help. I would discuss my project with Celia one or two days a week over the duration of the project. She would always give me suggestions on how to fix my results. Hearing her suggestions and seeing the work she was doing in the lab pushed me to continue with my project. She would suggest papers on topics that were related to my project to read. I would come back with questions if I had any. Sometimes the method sections of the papers would help me make alterations to my research design.

Reading peer-reviewed journals also taught me the value of persistence. Reading the work of others in the same field and other fields pushed me to keep working. Seeing how other researchers conducted experiments on similar topics and seeing the results they got helped me persevere. Discovering something new that could be potentially valuable for the general public would be great. I strive, to one day, be published in a peer-reviewed journal. I would love to be published in a prestigious journal like Nature or Science someday.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

This realization is significant for my life. The value of persistence is essential for achieving any current or future goal I may have. Many of the classes I am taking are very difficult. I do not give up because of this increased difficulty, it just pushes me to work harder. My current academic goals include graduating with honors from The Ohio State University with a chemistry major and French minor. This has not been an easy task thus far, and I don’t anticipate it getting any easier, but I am passionate about both chemistry and French. The hard work I put into my academic goals now will help me later in life to achieve my professional goals. Upon graduation from OSU, I plan to attend graduate school to earn a PhD in chemistry. The skills I am learning now in research and classroom settings will help me succeed.

Community Nutrition Research


Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

For my STEP Experience, I worked with my research advisor to take a nutrition intervention that she had previously developed and adapt it for a new audience. The intervention is an educational session intended to increase vegetable offering of low-income parents to their children, and was adapted for our new audience of young mothers with infants 0-1-year-old. The end goal was to then implement the intervention and test for feasibility, however we were unable to do so this summer as we are still waiting for IRB approval.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

Although this project is unfinished and I have yet to implement the intervention, we finished the all the necessary planning and intervention/class development that will be required for the intervention once we receive approval and schedule a date for the intervention. That being said, I learned a great deal about myself and my career goals, discovering that I would prefer working in community (and particularly low-income) settings rather than academia. I also learned that I have skills that need to be strengthened if I wish to work in the community.

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?

This summer, I realized that I truly enjoy working in the community, and particularly with low-income populations. I also developed a confidence in working in this setting, and I believe that I have the qualities and strengthened that skills that are needed to work in this setting. For example, I feel very comfortable interacting with those I have never met before, including the homeless, the mentally handicapped, and those who just simply come from starkly different backgrounds than mine. I preferred the community setting to the academic/research setting. I also learned that I have things to work on, such as time management and execution rather than simply developing ideas that are not carefully thought out.

This summer was transformative in terms of personal growth and career exploration and direction. Through my daily activities and interactions, I learned that I would likely like to working in the community setting, have a strong interest in maternal and child nutrition, and will likely not pursue academia. If I do choose to pursue community nutrition, however, I learned from STEP that I will have to strengthen some of my weaker skills.

As I spent time at Church and Community Development For All People (CD4AP), where we intend to hold the intervention, I discovered that I would most likely want to and feel qualified to work in the field of community nutrition, particularly in low-income settings in the context of maternal and child nutrition. When my research advisor, Dr. Adams, and I visited the center for the first time, I fell in love with CD4AP. They are doing the work that I had only imagined in the past, including a free food pantry, free “store” that gives people the opportunity to obtain clothes, community-building events such as church services and community meals, and nutrition and health services. When Dr. Adams gave me the necessary push to recruit participants on my own at some of the CD4AP community events, I realized that I have the capacity to interact with a variety of people with vastly unique backgrounds, as long as I trust and have confidence in myself. When I met the staff at CD4AP, I felt that we shared many of the same beliefs regarding access to health, happiness, and community for all members of society. As I educated myself on maternal and child nutrition, developed the course materials, and met some of the mothers who were interested in participating, I realized that I love the maternal/child area of nutrition. I believe that this is a time in the life of the mother and child wherein a person of support and guidance, such as a dietitian, can truly make a positive difference, especially for those in underserved areas.

Conversely, I am less interested in pursuing academia after completing this STEP experience. Coming into this project, I was interested in discovering whether I would like to have a job similar to that of Dr. Adams. While I learned a great deal from her and truly appreciate the time she dedicated to teaching me and helping me grow as a student and person, I do not think I would be interested in the job of an academician, especially one with a focus in research. Dr. Adams explained to me that she is required to have her name on a certain number of publications, which sounds stressful to me. I would rather focus on addressing the needs of my community. I also learned that funding is erratic and difficult to obtain. As a result, interventions that may be working well may have to be shut down. There were several other aspects of the academic job, and I simply became overwhelmed when experiencing and learning about them this summer.

Finally, I learned that, if I wish to work in the community, I will have to strengthen my time management skills. Coming into this project, I was under the impression that things occur a great deal faster than they do. I thought I would have the intervention completed by June and data analysis ready to go by August. Instead, the planning of the intervention took all summer and we are still waiting for feedback on our third IRB submission. I am very grateful that my advisor gave me the freedom to be involved at every step of the process, including making the powerpoint, recruitment of participants, writing the IRB, developing activities, communicating with the staff at CD4AP, and much more. These components took a lot longer than I had anticipated and I will need to master how to plan ahead if I wish to plan and implement successful community programs in the future.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

After learning about my career interests, strengths, and weaknesses during this STEP experience, I feel more confident in my career direction and more knowledgeable about the areas in which I wish to invest my time and energy. The field of nutrition is vast and varied, and one must narrow down her interests and choose a path, and, upon completing my STEP project, I believe I may choose the path of community nutrition. I am interested in all aspects of community nutrition, however I truly enjoyed working with mothers and infants, and could picture myself working in this specialty in the future. Quite frankly, I could even see myself working at this specific facility (CD4AP), I know that feel that they are working on community issues that I am passionate about, and I like the holistic approach to community (i.e. health, faith, inclusivity, etc.), and, through STEP, I was able to begin to build relationships with the staff there that I hope to continue to grow in the future. In my opinion, this STEP project was just that—a step in what seems to be the right direction. I now plan to continue my involvement at CD4AP and continue exploring community nutrition as a possible career path upon graduation. Additionally, I wish to thank Dr. Adams and the STEP program for making this opportunity possible.


STEP Reflection

Name: Zachary Smotzer

Type of Project: Undergraduate Research

Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

For my STEP signature project I worked in a Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology lab under Dr. Parthun. I used immunohistochemistry techniques on 10 micrometer sections of mice brains to examine the proliferation of nervous cells in comparison to the Hat 1 expression in their brains. I was involved in every step of the process which started with harvesting the mouse brains to mounting them on microscopy slides and analyzing them with a microscope.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

Personally, I learned some new things about myself. Mainly, I leaned what it is like to truly devote yourself to your project. I have worked in the Parthun lab for roughly six months, and this was the first time I was essentially given the reigns on a project. That meant that it was up to me to plan what I needed to do, manage my time and learn new laboratory skills to ensure the success of this project. I believe that this additional responsibility gave me a greater understanding of what it means to be a researcher. I gained a greater respect for the scientists that we have today as I can understand all the hard work they put into their study. I found this project to be rewarding, and will be obtaining more data at different time points as the year goes on. I harnessed all my dedication to work on this project and seeing it unfold has been an incredible experience.


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?

One of the main things that I took away from this experience was a vast increase of my laboratory skillset. I learned many new techniques during this project. I also expanded my knowledge of the subject matter the research lab I am a part of is involved in. Each step of this project involved something new that I learned. To harvest the brain, it is necessary to fix the tissue in paraformaldehyde which is something that was novel to me. Afterwards, I learned how to embed the tissue in OCT (Optimum cutting temperature compound) and then make the brain slices using the cryostat. The last step of this project involved staining the brain with specific antibodies that would show where neurogenesis is occurring. A large amount of technical learning was required for this project and afterwards I definitely feel like I am a more capable research assistant and a more valuable asset to the Parthun lab.

Another thing that I took away from this project was a closer relationship with the laboratory team I worked with at Rightmire Hall. I worked mainly with Dr. Prabakaran over the summer, and he has been a fantastic mentor to me. Dr. Prabakaran has a lot of knowledge to give, and I have been taking advantage of that fact. Additionally some of the previous undergrads have had similar career goals to me and have went on to med school after undergrad so it was helpful to hear about their stories and path to medical school.

Finally, I think that my money management skills increased this summer. This was the first time that I had to make a budget and stick with it to make sure I had enough money for rent/food and other necessities. The STEP budget was very eye opening in regards to what I would be needing to be doing as I transitioned from dorms to a house off-campus in the coming year, not to mention the rest of my adult life. Getting a handle on my finances is very important and STEP provided an easy way to test out how it would work in a real-world setting. I have since made a budget for the school year and plan to stick to it.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

I think that this change is valuable to me because I want to be the best at whatever I do. I am currently heavily involved in the Parthun lab and I want to be as good a resource as I possibly can be for them. I have been provided an amazing opportunity and plan to capitalize on it. Additionally, it is beneficial for me to have such great mentors to help me achieve my goals. Forging stronger relationships with the people I work with will benefit me both in my professional as well as personal life. On a more technical note, If I were to seek out any other research fellowships the new laboratory techniques I learned will be very valuable. I am a Neuroscience major and getting some hands-on experience with brains is an experience that most others do not get to undergo and will help me with my studies.



Summer Research: Maternal Exercise Improves Metabolic Health of Offspring through Adaptations to Breastmilk

Johan Harris

Undergraduate Research

My STEP Project was spending a summer in the lab of Dr. Kristin I. Stanford at the Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.  I worked on a project determining how maternal exercise affects offspring’s metabolic health by studying the effects of the exercise on breastmilk using a mouse model.  We found that a specific milk oligosaccharide called 3’SL is critical in propagating this exercise effect, as it is greatly elevated in trained mothers and knockout mice saw no effect result from the exercise when 3’SL was not present in the mother’s milk.

This project has been a long time in the making, since I started working in the Stanford Lab almost two years ago now.  When I started I was not sure about how much I liked research.  However, this summer I came to really appreciate research and I enjoyed my time working in the lab.  This type of position really showed to me how important team work is in any setting, whether a project seems like an individual responsibility or not.  Spending the summer at the lab led me to see how a world will open up for you when you take the time it requires of you.

Spending the summer in the lab was so much better than spending 10-15 hours a week in the lab during the school year.  I was able not only to become much more productive in my own projects, with more time I could move faster day by day, but I also was able to build relationships like I could not do with limited time before.  However, just having 40 hours a week instead of 10 is not the key to the puzzle.  How you spend that time is very important.  One of my colleagues, Adam, and I would have daily morning conversations while we checked our emails and asked each other how are evenings had been.  This was just one way in which we connected to make our work environment so much more pleasant.  As new people came into the lab throughout the summer, we all became more and more talkative, eventually all going out to lunch together.

While I am glad I was able to become better friends with everyone at the lab, the same principle carried over into the work.  I worked as much as I could in order to get things done.  By showing my diligence I became more respected and trusted by my PI and lab manager.  As the summer progressed I was asked to take on more and more responsibility, and when Adam left to attend medical school, I was asked to help train the new Research Assistant.  My work ethic had proven to them that I could be a good example for the new members of the team that were coming into the lab.  In addition, I was offered to help write a Review Article for a journal along with my PI and lab manager, and I am presenting our research at several venues this fall.

But not only was I able to work hard and gain a better footing in the lab for coming back to school and being there less, I learned so much about working in a team.  Everyone in a research lab has materials they need to use and often times on a time sensitive basis.  Everyone will have days where they need help covering something because events and experiments coincide with each other, or they need to deal with an emergency outside of work.  Communication is so crucial to having a successful team, and when it is lacking everyone takes the fall.  When the PI and lab manager were not in town, all the members of the team had to know what they were doing, or someone had to be the person to ask.

The summer will be valuable for my future career as a professional and as a student.  Medical school will be a challenge I need to meet with my fellow medical school students.  When I become a doctor I will either be leading a team or part of a team being led.  Understanding how a team dynamic works and how to foster good relationships within that team will be crucial both to all of our happiness and to the outcomes of our patients.  Miscommunication in a life or death situation must be avoided at all costs.  And yet despite how serious the profession is, I must be able to make it my own and enjoy myself, while working as hard as I can to get out of it what I want because without the hard work there will be nothing.

The summer has made me think about whether I wanted to pursue more research in the future as a career and not just think going straight to medical school.  I felt a desire to explore jobs outside of medicine completely, in an environment similar to the laboratory.  I know that whatever I decide to do, I may need to take a couple years building in order to get what I want, just as I did in the lab.  Nothing will be given to me that easily.  And if nothing else, I have developed a very specific interest in the field of metabolism and metabolic health.   I am eager to keep doing more research to figure out all there is to know about this milk oligosaccharide, in a way I have not felt curious before.  Research was not at all boring and tedious.  Research was great real world experience in an environment that revealed enough of real dynamics without exacerbating them, and it made me really want to continue doing research in order to help people suffering from diabetes and to prevent the next generation from falling victim to our habits.