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.