Summer STEP Project Reflection: REDO

The original intent of my STEP Signature Project was to aid the research done by students in Dr. Katelyn-Reilly’s lab. The lab was focused on Bio-Ocular research. All the available projects were based on finding some polymer-based replacement to a part of the human eye. Due to the lab being part of the Biomedical Engineering department this project was supposed to help me hone my lab skills and expose me to a different type of engineering. A variable I did not account for was also getting an internship during this time. I will go into more depth on how I dealt/ balanced this with my project later.

The project I chose was trying to find a hydrogel that replaced the vitreous of the human eye. The vitreous is the gel that makes up the inside of the eye. If the eye has taken some sort of trauma or the vitreous is replaced during surgery, it’s replaced with a silicone gel. The issue is that silicone gel does not replicate the characteristics of the human vitreous well. It doesn’t hold the same viscous and elastic properties and it doesn’t keep the same oxygen gradient. With the human vitreous, oxygen is heavily concentrated near the rear of the eye while the front (the cornea) has very low oxygen content. If oxygen content is more dispersed, the increased oxygen in the cornea can cause secondary cataracts. Thus, the project was created to find a polymer combination that created a hydrogel that could very closely mimic the eye’s natural vitreous.

My part of the project was to help synthesize various polymer combinations to create a set of testable hydrogels. The combinations were tested with various equipment such as a rheometer and a spectrometer to see if one of the hydrogels held mechanical and light transmittance properties close to that of our test vitreous. Due to the high price of using actual human eyes, we used pig eyes to get testable natural vitreous. Besides polymer synthesis, I would pick up small data analysis jobs from the graduate students in the lab. Since I had no background in polymers or biology at all, I had a significant disadvantage initially. However, thanks to the graduates around me I was able to grow my knowledge of polymer synthesis and of the field of biopolymers.

Below are a couple of pictures showcasing my polymer synthesis set up.

Close up of a polymer being synthesized.

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Video of Polymer Synthesis on a smaller scale

The largest understanding of mine that changed during this project was my assumptions of the structure of lab work and balancing my time effectively. As an example, I expected that I would have gotten a small project to work on from one of the graduate students immediately. What I have come to know with this lab, and most likely everywhere else, is that I must be vocal about what I want to do or who I want to help. I needed to go up to graduates and tell them what I wanted to do under their research because they were unsure of what general lab project I wanted to work on.

I remember the troubles of trying to advertise to the graduate students that I was available to help them in their projects. I initially thought that they would remember me telling them before the end of the school year that I was going to be around the lab during the summer and that I was willing to help anyone who needed it. One of the graduates seemed eager to want my help. However, when the time rolled around, it seemed that none of them remembered I was there. I had tried to contact them through buckeyemail to advertise I was available and still, there was little to no reply. This issue finally wore on me to the point where I began coming in, walking straight to the graduate office and physically asking any graduate if they needed help. I eventually began to receive work from the graduates in the lab once I advertised myself enough.

Another instance of my change came with one of the individual meetings I had with Dr. Katelyn Swindle-Reilly. At that time, sometime around June/July, I had taken in a small amount of work from the graduate students but not as much as I had hoped. As I was talking with her, I realized that the hours I assumed would work with the graduates was not as good as I thought. The lab hours were segmented into small 1-2 hour days which I came to realize was not enough to take on any larger projects. After talking with her I decided to lower my work hours and restructure my schedule so that I had larger blocks of lab time.

As mentioned before, I had problems balancing an internship (at Chemical Abstract Service) with the lab work. I had not assumed any outside factors may affect the plan I had laid out already and it was hard for me to properly adjust this project with my internship. I had to adjust my work schedule multiple times to increase the hours I spent at the lab while also still putting in enough hours at work to make a supporting paycheck. It was my inexperience with balancing two jobs that led me to this issue. However, I think the lesson I took away from this issue is valuable. I have never needed to split my time between two equally important things until now. Because of this, I believe I can better identify and rank tasks/ goals that need to be completed.

I think my view towards time management is the most transformative to me because when I initially came in, I was under my previous assumption that I had enough time to balance everything. Prior to the project, I’ve never had to worry about balancing my time between two very important things. I may have my parents to thank for that, but it certainly led to the assumption that I could keep taking on more responsibilities without having to put much thought into the amount time I’d need to do everything in a high-quality fashion.

During the STEP project, I found out that if I want to take on more important projects and finish things in high quality I needed to start thinking about how much time I can effectively give out. Additionally, with the limited time I had, I ran the risk of putting out bad data in the lab and what I failed to realize at first was that this influenced others around me. My bad performance could steer the lab in the wrong direction for months, wasting everyone’s time. By changing my view on how precious and limited my time is, I have effectively changed my view on just how much work I would be willing to take on.

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