My STEP Signature Project was a research position with Dr. Larry Brown of the Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering Department over the Summer months of 2018. Our project was to plan, design, and install a two-stage system to remove harmful runoff nutrients from entering local waterways through runoff in agricultural areas. I performed jobs throughout the summer such as researching journals, organizing and discarding of old files, creating digital sketches of the structure using software, reaching out to companies to find the proper equipment, assisting grad student to collect data, learning to use field equipment, assist in the setup of the structure and data collection centers, traveling to see the progress of other structures, and potentially planning a new research project.
I was able to meet a variety of people this summer and many different areas of Ohio. Dr. Brown often liked to take the people we visited out to lunch or dinner, and the opportunity to talk to these people in a casual setting was very educational. I met other workers in agriculture, conservation, and research and how they came upon what they wanted to do and what they did to get there. I was also able to interact with a lot of graduate students and talk to them about graduate school as a possible option for my future. I received a lot of information and found that I have a great interest in research, especially the collaboration and planning it takes to make the project happen. I have read so many scientific papers over the years detailing the results of experiments, but I actually got to see what goes into the before stages leading up to obtaining any data. I found it takes much more time and work than I anticipated, as people are continuously thinking of new ideas and deciding on a different measurement here or there. Our structure was far from intricate as seen in this drawing bellow, but the planning it took was years and many revisions in the making. These structures have been implemented throughout the Midwest, and many professors and researchers from many different states have been collaborating on it and improving upon it. My view on research was changed significantly and I came to the conclusion that it is something with no right or wrong answer. One can only draw up the best plan, and hope for the desired results. If not, revisions must be made. That is what I loved so much about it because each day presents a new problem, and brainstorming with those around me and observing Dr. Brown come up with brilliant ideas encouraged me to think outside the box and really start to apply some engineering principles to a real-life situation.
The biggest influence on my experience was working with Dr. Brown. He was always so willing to make each day a learning experience for the other undergraduates and I, and encouraged us to ask questions frequently. I had the opportunity to spend whole days this summer with Dr. Brown traveling to these sites throughout Northwest Ohio and back, typically in the same day. He would drive us and often have conversations with us about what we wanted to pursue in our careers, and was eager to find us the connections we needed for what we thought we would like to do. When I mentioned I may want to go into research to improve water or soil quality, he ecstatic and was genuinely interested in helping me find out more about how I can get involved and even offered for me to do my own research project through him. He has become a great resource and friend to me, who I know I can reach out to in my own department if I need help with anything. He introduced me to so many people and no matter who it was, he was always kind and genuinely interested when catching up with them about their research and personal life. I was also able to observe him in action when brainstorming the plan for the structure. Dr. Brown was the leader of the engineering side of the project, and he knew exactly where each pipe led and how to alleviate something if they ran into a problem. I remember one particular conference call he had us listen in on from another researcher at Purdue University working on the same project in his own state. He was having trouble with getting a fast enough flow of water through his structure, and Dr. Brown immediately had a suggestion and explanation that the other professor had never thought of. They were very grateful for his input, once me and other the undergraduates were able show him how to work Google Hangout, of course. This made me realize how years and practice and being an expert in a field can be so beneficial, and the excitement of being a research engineer and solving new problems every day. I hope to be able to give valuable input when solving problems in a team one day, and maybe even conduct my own research such as this.
My favorite day this summer was the installation of one of the data collection centers in Putnam county, Ohio. We left very early in the morning to be able to work all day and met the farmer in charge of the property. He did not fully understand what we were about to do, so we explained that we were putting in water control structures that managed the speed of the water. These structures are where we are able to take samples of the water using ISCO sampling stations and pressure sensors. All of this technology is run through solar energy that charges a battery, however, all of these devices needed to be set up by hand as this was an original design. These two days of installation is where I learned a lot of about the mechanics behind the structure, and also gained a bunch of new technical skills I had never been exposed to before. Everyone was so willing to help me learn and it was a really positive atmosphere throughout the day even though we were doing hours of manual labor in the hot summer sun. I learned how to use power tools including a power drill and power saw. I also learned how to strip a wire and properly build a wooden structure to hold a solar panel at the right angle to get the maximum amount of sun throughout the day. Seeing the finished project at the end of the day was extremely rewarding, and the data is being collected for analysis this semester. I am still involved on the project and I am excited to see what the results show after a couple months of collection.
Another big influence on my experience was working with the graduate students and USDA workers who were also helping us on our project. They all were also very interested in what I would like to do in the future and really encouraged my passions in the field. I first thought graduate school was mainly for people who wanted to be professors or doctors, but they taught me that anyone can go to graduate school if they want to get more specific in their studies and have a good research foundation when entering the workforce. I also learned specializing in something very specific and unique and becoming an expert in that can make you a very valuable resource to employers, and will help you stand out better in an interview. As I am approaching my senior year I have worries about finding a job without having an internship yet, but this research position has given me something valuable to discuss that could potentially improve my chances of obtaining an internship for the coming summer. Even if I do not pursue graduate school right away, it is something I can talk to an employer about to show my goals of devotion and continual improvement for the company. These were all factors that they helped me consider upon discussion, giving me options for my future I had never considered. Hearing their stories and struggles to get funding, and listening to their advice was exceptionally educational and probably better than any Google search I could have done about graduate school. Knowing these students and USDA workers also added to my web of resources within my department who I still see every day in the Agricultural Engineering building when I attend my classes. I was touched when I received an email from one of them at the end of the summer commenting on my hard work and genuine interest for their research, because there were many instances where I could only observe because I was not at their skillset, and I felt helpless to what they were working on. Whether I decide to work in research or consulting with a company, I know I will have people to give me first-hand advice along the way. Pictured in the purple t-shirt and hat is one of the graduate students, Ashely, whom we spent a lot of time with as she is using data from the structures for her graduate work.
This project was very valuable to my college experience as it introduced a whole other option for my future. I had never considered graduate school as an option for my future, but I always knew I had a vague interest in research that I had never fully pursued before. The opportunity to live in Columbus and have the funds to feed and clothe myself for the summer helped me really be able to focus on my work and contemplate my future. I came upon the conclusion that research will be integrated into my future career one way or another and is a passion I will continue to pursue in my personal and professional life. I like to think in unique ways and continually question a problem until I understand it to be true, which is exactly the kind of mindset that drives research and technological innovation. Before this research project I had no one to resort to as a reference, no resources within my own department, and very little to talk deeply about in an interview setting. Now I have friends and colleagues with resources that I trust will guide me in the right direction. I can talk passionately for how I want to work towards better global soil and water quality, and possibly work towards cleaning up Lake Erie one day. Having more confidence when people ask me, “What would you like to do with your major?” and elaborating on what I did this summer has me excited for the upcoming job fair, as I feel like this experience will bring about more opportunities for an internship next summer. This summer and everything I learned will be one I’ll never forget, and I hope one day I can look back on it as the starting point in the passion for my field.
(Note: I was given permission to submit my post past the due date due to extraordinary circumstances. Please direct any questions to Chelsea Black at firstname.lastname@example.org)