STEP HIGH ALTITUDE BALLOON REFLECTION

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Name: Cole Harlow

Type of Project: Creative Endeavors

Link to Project Blog: https://harlow74.wixsite.com/coleharlow/projects

The purpose of my project was to record photographs and videos of a near-space environment (approx 100,000 ft). To do this I utilized a High Altitude Balloon with components of my design. To monitor the balloon from afar I created a microcontroller-based tracking program which allowed the location of the balloon to be monitored in real-time. Through the course of this project, I have launched two balloons successfully and am preparing to launch a third this winter. To make this design process more transformative I also created a website to create tutorials to replicate all of the HABs I launched for this project.

The design and construction of the balloon helped me to become more confident in my ability to learn to write new types of code and to learn to work with new tools and machines. More importantly, the tutorial part of this project helped me to discover the enjoyment that can be derived from teaching others how to create similar projects. Through this process of teaching, I was not only able to re-affirm my knowledge but I was also forced to explain each piece of the project succinctly and understandably. By doing this I came to enjoy the process of teaching others and I am now hoping to take the information documented on my website and use it to create videos to train others how to create a HAB. The discovery of my enjoyment from teaching also helped me to clarify my future goals in terms of my education. I believe that after completing this project I am more interested in pursuing a Ph.D. so that I can teach engineering in a university setting.

One of the reasons I came to enjoy helping others through tutorials and videos is because I know how useful they can be. A lot of my project was simplified due to the hours spent by many other people to document and create their projects. Through virtually every step of this process, I was able to turn to similar projects for guidance. I also became more familiar with websites such as GitHub which is just designed to allow people to work together on coding projects. This program helps to facilitate collaboration online by allowing users to post their code and allowing other users to use this code and suggest changes to make it better. Some of the code on this website is truly incredible and very informative and helpful to people using the code. In addition to this, I also found a huge plethora of people who had created their website to aid others in learning new concepts. Through these websites and GitHub, I was able to understand the impact that creating tutorials for others can have, and this has made me enthusiastic to continue educating the public through similar tutorials.

In addition to this through the process of launching the balloons, I learned of the enthusiasm that people can have to learn new topics and ideas. Many of my friends, family, and neighbors helped me to launch and retrieve this balloon. Through this process, many of these friends expressed their interest in and asked questions about the balloon. The enthusiasm which these people showed, helped me to understand the interest in STEM projects like HABs can create in the general public. I hope that as I continue to create more HABs and other projects that by documenting these projects and reaching out to teach others I can increase the interest people in my community have in STEM.

Finally, through this project, I also became familiar with the American Radio Relay League. The ARRL is a group of hobbyist in the united states that use their knowledge and skills with radios to create massive communication networks for various purposes. These networks can be used to transmit all kinds of information and can allow users to talk to others from across the world. Members of the ARRL have also created ways to send emails to even the most remote places in the world and can also support other data such as video being transmitted. Perhaps most interesting ARRL has also created an emergency network which can be used to alert others and coordinate rescue operations in during emergencies. Becoming familiar with this technology further showed me the impact that hobbyist can have on the lives of everyday people through their selfless work. This made me want to continue working on projects similar to those done by ARRL in the hope of inspiring others in becoming involved as well as to potentially provide useful information to ARRL members.

As previously mentioned this transformation is significant because it has shown me the enjoyment that can be derived from helping others to learn new topics and concepts. This is helpful because it will be useful in determining the end goal of my education. Even if I choose not to pursue a Ph.D. it showed me the interest I have in teaching others through a variety of methods such as YouTube or blogging. Although these are not usually thought of as places for receiving information the increasing prevalence of the maker community has made these mediums for information increasingly useful and beneficial to the greater community.

Internship with The Ohio State University Entomology department

This past summer I completed an internship with The Ohio State University Entomology Department. My job title was student assistant and I gained knowledge about agricultural pests for various crops. I used this internship as my STEP signature project and used the STEP money to help me pay for housing (rent) during the duration of my internship.

I learned many new things about myself throughout my internship. I learned that I enjoy working outdoors and having a job that does not necessarily have the same day to day tasks. By learning this about myself I now have a better idea of the kind of work I would like to do after I graduate. I also learned through this internship that I enjoy doing research based work or any work that requires close attention to detail. This has now sparked an interest for me to go to graduate school.

While completing my STEP signature project I was able to gain new ideas for career opportunities for after I graduate. My daily tasks included things such as taking care of the colony of stinkbugs in the lab that we use for research, deploying stinkbug eggs in various orchards throughout Ohio for our parasitic wasps testing, and evaluating sweetcorn plots looking for stinkbug damage. Throughout this internship I was able to network with Orchard growers throughout Ohio along with gaining knowledge about some of the insect pests that these growers were dealing with.

This internship gave me new career path ideas for myself and gave me hands on skills that I can use in future classes. I was also able to gain research experience and learned how to properly collect and record data that was obtained throughout my work. As I stated before, this internship has given me an interest in attending graduate school, while I am not sure what I would go for yet I am interested in going for my masters degree.

Having a job that consisted of working outdoors for a majority of the time has shown me that I do not want to have a desk job after graduation. It is important for me to have a job that the location fluctuates from day to day. During my internship I did a lot of travelling to different orchards around Ohio, it made the days more interesting and being able to talk to orchard growers was a really neat experience.

The changes to myself that I have experienced this past summer have made significant impacts on my life. Being able to complete this internship allowed me to create career ideas for myself as well as make the decision to eventually obtain my masters degree. Being able to complete this internship without having to worry about making enough money for my monthly rent costs enabled me to better focus on my job and growing as a person both professionally and personally.

STEP Undergraduate Research 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 entailed.

My STEP Signature Project involved the development, conduction, and analysis of a scientific research project involving thoracic spinal cord injury treatment. My responsibilities included forming a hypothesis and planning the project, completing all tasks throughout the project, and analyzing the results that were obtained. An animal model was used to conduct an experiment involving upper extremity training after a thoracic spinal cord injury to improve trunk stability and lower extremity locomotion.

 

  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.

While completing my STEP signature project, I improved my organization and time management skills as well as learned how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and adjusting my path to fit the new direction. While conducting this project, I had to learn how to plan out the study in order to make sure I could complete all my tasks on time each day. In order to stay on track, I had to make sure I was making a certain amount of progress and track my advancements throughout the study. This allowed me to learn how to manage my time efficiently to ensure all tasks are completed. Additionally, I had to be extremely organized in order to decide what tasks to complete each day. These skills will allow me to improve aspects of my personal and future professional career as I go throughout life.

In addition to time management and organization, this project taught me how to be flexible and adapt to situations I cannot plan for. Although I tried my best to organize the project so all tasks could be completed each day, sometimes an unexpected event occurred that forced the calendar to be setback. I had to learn to be flexible in these situations and adapt to the new circumstances. This involved adjusting the calendar each time I needed to in order to ensure the tasks were still completed. This skill will be extremely beneficial in the future, as I will definitely come across unexpected circumstances and I will need to be flexible to be successful.

 

  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.

 

The events that occurred during my STEP project that allowed me to make this transformation included unexpected events such as being ill, last minute meetings, or appointments that I could not miss. These events interfered with the planned activities for the day and forced me to have to readjust the calendar to account for the lack of time that day. This affected me because it allowed me to have experience with an unexpected event, a situation that I am sure I will encounter in the future.

Along with the events that allowed this transformation, I had many people that guided me through this project and helped me to adjust and be flexible when I needed to be. My lab manager helped me to develop a plan and a schedule to carry out this project effectively. My principal investigator guided me in understanding scientific concepts surrounding spinal cord injury and helped me form my hypothesis. The lab technicians aided me in conducting the project, through helping me carry out daily tasks. All staff in my lab were extremely supportive and helped me tremendously throughout this project. This is important because it taught me the value of teamwork and allowed me to learn how to work with others to complete a project.

  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.

This transformation, along with the skills I have obtained through conducting this project, have prepared me with traits that I will use in the future in my personal and professional life. Time management, organization, and flexibility are all essential characteristics to good relationships with people in all settings, whether that be personal or professional. As a future physician, these skills will be portrayed in my career every day as I try to manage my busy schedule to care for as many patients as I can. In order to effectively treat patients, I need to be able to manage my schedule and organize my days so I can give each patient individual attention. Additionally, in any aspect of life, unexpected events will always occur and I now have the skills to be able to handle them effectively. Overall, the skills I have gained through this experience will allow me to be a better person in my personal life as well as my future career.

STEP project: undergraduate research

My STEP signature project was starting my thesis “Comparison of Illicit Drug Use in the Ohio Regional Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Model Systems Dataset to Ohio and National Populations” at a TBI lab located in Dodd Rehabilitation Center. I also was a lab assistant in this lab and filed patient data, scheduled interviews, and performed ADAMH (alcohol drug and mental health) screenings for participants.

Many changes happened for me because of my STEP project, and one of the biggest takeaways is: life doesn’t always go as expected and sometimes struggles lead you to the right path. Starting my thesis was a hard task from the very beginning of my project. We had troubles getting me access to our dataset because IT was not cooperating, some of our files went missing, etc. Then after going through over a 1,000 participant’s worth of data for two months, it turns out only two of our participants claimed they used opioids during 2016-2017. This was obviously too small of a sample size to continue with this thesis. It was nothing that myself or my lab supervisor could have predicted. I was of course distraught because I needed this thesis to get into PhD programs; but I soon learned everything happens for a reason.

After my dataset fell through for continuing my thesis, I continued to help the lab with the conducting different research by assessing patient drug use with ADAMH interviews. Being in the lab more often, I got pretty close to some of the other people who worked in the lab. One of the main people that changed my life during my STEP project was one of my supervisors, Beth Windisch. Beth was a licensed independent social worker; something I have never heard of.  She told me that an LISW can provide mental health treatment to patients which I thought could only be done by obtaining your PhD in clinical psychology. She told me that I could get an LISW after getting my masters in social work. I then went home and found as much information I could about becoming an LISW and it was life changing. To get your LISW, you first have to get a masters in social work (which Ohio State offers a 2 years’ masters program) and then I take a licensing exam. All together, this could take a total of 4 years. Before this, I was expecting to be in PhD school for 8 years and then hopefully become licensed 2 years after that: a total of 10 years before I could star working with patients. This has always been a worry of mine since choosing this career path because I want to be able to help people as soon as possible. Furthermore, PhD schools are heavily focused on research and after my incident with my thesis, I do not think research is right career path for me. Knowing that I may have to have another falling out with a doctoral thesis, gave me a lot of stress I did not want to potentially deal with for another 10 years. In a social work masters program, you get field placements where you start working with patients within your first few weeks and that is exactly what I want. If I did not have a falling out with my undergraduate research thesis, I would not have worked in the lab more, would not have met Beth, and would not have found a profession that is perfect for me. So, this STEP signature project affected me because I have learned not to worry so much when things do not go exactly as planned, because things will always work out in the end.

This change is significant in my life in so many aspects. Since this experience I have been able to reduce my anxieties about many things in life. If I feel overwhelmed with assignments or do not do to well on a test, I do not take it so hard as I did when I was a freshman in college. I am able to refocus, learn from my mistakes, and move on with a new sense of direction. This can relate to academic, personal, and professional goal struggles. For example, I am planning on graduating early this December and am applying to different grad schools and jobs throughout Ohio and around the country. Though this is a stressful time, I know that whatever happens is meant to be. I am so grateful for this STEP experience because I have been able to change my outlook on life and find my ideal career.

For my STEP project, I spent two months at University College Dublin in Ireland working in a neuroscience research lab. We used electrophysiology to investigate the effects of novel phytocannabinoids on synaptic transmission and long-term potentiation in the Schaffer-collateral pathway of mice hippocampi.

Although I thought living in Ireland would be fairly easy, spending two months in a foreign country definitely forced me out of my comfort zone and tested my independence. Getting to interact with people from different backgrounds gave me a new perspective on the world, but it also made me realize that it’s not that hard to find things in common with other people regardless of background or culture. Being in such an intensive program, where I had to complete 40 hours a week of research, prepare a literature review, write a 40-page paper about my findings, and present my poster to a panel of examiners; I got some great exposure to the world of research. Although the program was a lot of work and sometimes stressful, I gained a greater appreciation for basic science research, and I’ve decided that it’s something I want to continue to pursue in medical school.

One of the most important parts of my project was the relationships I made. My principle investigator, who I worked under in the lab, has been a great mentor to me and taught me so much about having a career in science and being a woman in science. She was encouraging and helpful every step of the way, and I truly appreciate all the advice and guidance that she gave me. The graduate student in my lab also served as a mentor to me since she was mainly the one actually teaching me the laboratory techniques and helping me with my writing. Because of them, I feel more confident in my ability to work in a research lab and concisely write about my research. The other undergraduate student who worked in the lab with me was a great friend throughout the whole summer, and she was kind enough to show me around Dublin and make recommendations about things for my roommates and I to do.

Along with the people in my lab, I’m also grateful for the roommates I had while in Ireland. I went into the program not knowing anyone and being one of only three Ohio State people on the trip, but my roommates and I immediately became great friends. Having a good group of friends made exploring Ireland a lot more fun, and they helped push me out of my comfort zone. One weekend three of us went to London for a weekend, something I probably would’ve been nervous to do by myself. Although they all go to University of Michigan, we still keep in touch, and I plan on visiting them for the football game over Thanksgiving break.

Working in a lab gave me some insight into both the joys and frustrations of research. I discovered that although the process can be slow and sometimes disappointing, I really enjoy being a part of research and feeling like I’m contributing to a team. The experience has also helped me to figure out what type of research I enjoy. Electrophysiology in neuroscience research is somewhat niche, so I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to be exposed to it. Now that I know what I enjoy, I hope to find a similar research lab when I’m in medical school, so I can continue with electrophysiology. Getting the opportunity to actually prepare a literature review, paper, and poster also significantly helped my writing skills and my ability to read and interpret literature. I also got the opportunity to present my research to a panel of examiners which has helped me gain confidence that I know will help me when presenting in the future.

Since completing my STEP project, I feel like I have a clearer image of what I want to do with my career. Having a great mentor, who I still keep in contact with, has given me a role model to look up to and go to for advice when I’m feeling unsure of myself or my future career. Going to Ireland without knowing anyone beforehand has also given me more confidence because I’ve learned that I can adapt to new environments and people better than I previously thought. It’s also helped me gain a better sense of independence, which I know I will need as I move to a different city next year all by myself to start medical school.

Step Reflection

 

For my signature project, I was a research volunteer in the Wilgus lab at the Wexner Medical Center.  I continued to work on my research project looking at the effects of the VEGFR-1 pathway on keratinocyte function.

Throughout the course of my signature project, I really got a glimpse of what my life after graduation will be like.  For the first time, I experienced a small amount of what employment might be like post college.  I had personal responsibilities that required the ability to work on my own and complete projects on time.  In addition, my project required me to collaborate with others in my lab.  Without this collaboration with others, progress on our research would not advance.  This project taught me valuable lessons on working in a professional environment.

In addition to the demands of my lab, this signature project taught me important lessons on living on my own.  For the first time, I needed to satisfy all of my needs in order to be productive at my work.  This included the basic tasks I have done for years like laundry.  Additionally, I needed to provide food for almost every meal I ate.  Without the convenience of the dining halls, this proved to be challenging sometimes.  I had to budget and plan my grocery shopping well in advance.  I learned quickly how important some advanced planning was to ensure everything went smoothly.

One major source of this transformation was my interaction with the staff in my lab.  Many of the techniques and procedures I needed to complete in the lab were things I have never done before.  It took me quite a long time to learn some of the more difficult procedures.  I still struggle to get accurate results with some techniques today.  Thankfully, my PI, Dr. Traci Wilgus, taught me the best ways to complete many of these techniques and remained patient the whole time.

In addition to the training my PI gave me, I also received plenty of assistance from an older student in my lab.  He was always willing to help whenever I needed it.  Early on, I would often ask him for aid with procedures I was unsure with.  Whether it be teaching me some helpful tricks to more easily accomplish a task or reading a result for me, this student proved to be an invaluable resource.   Working with the other members of my lab taught me many important lessons that will stay with me the rest of my life.

One of the biggest challenges of this project proved to be living on my own.  Providing myself with food ended up being more challenging than I thought.  I was living on a tight food budget that left very little money for eating out.  In addition, I did not have a car and getting to the grocery store was sometimes difficult.  After eating nothing but pasta for three days in a row, I quickly learned the value in making a grocery list and planning out the food I intended to eat in advance.  This lesson can also be applied to many other aspects of my life.  Following this experience, I now feel adequately prepared to live on my own post-graduation.

This signature project was significant for my life because of my future career plans in the medical field.  It gave me my first research experience.  As I move onto medical school, these experiences will give me insight on the process new treatments follow to get developed.  In addition, this project taught me the valuable skill of reading scientific papers.  I now feel more confident in gathering and evaluating the important information found in journal articles.  This project will assist me with my future career plans every step of the way.

An example of data I took

STEP Project: A Categorification of Biquandle Brackets

A Categorification of Biquandle Brackets

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.

The goal of my STEP project was to create a categorification of biquandle brackets. In general I just worked to first create such a categorification, and then to prove that it worked as desired. I also presented my progress to my adviser on a weekly basis.

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.

My project allowed me to completely immerse myself in math research for the summer. As such I encountered lots of hard problems, and had the opportunity to grow and overcome them. In attempting to solve these problems, I was able to learn much more math, especially in more specialized areas. I also had to present my research multiple times throughout the summer, allowing me to improve my presentation skills. Since I worked in a group for this project, I was also able to improve my ability to work in a team. Over the course of this project I realized just how grueling math research can be. I’ve realized how much willpower it takes to continue to attack a specific problem after numerous failures, and I now have nothing but the utmost respect for those who pursue math research professionally. But I’ve also realized just how good it feels to finally solve that problem, and because of that I know that I want to continue to chase that feeling in the future.

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.

The goal of our project was to create a categorification of biquandle brackets.To do that there are essentially two steps. First to create a way of constructing a cochain complex from any link whose graded euler characteristic is the biquandle bracket of the link, and second to prove the cohomology of that complex is a link invariant. The first step took us about three weeks. We had numerous ideas for completing this step, but almost all of them failed in different ways. Some failed to give cochain complexes, some failed to have the correct graded euler characteristic, and some actually succeeded at the first step entirely but were quickly seen to fail at the second step. Finally we created a construction that succeeded at the first step. With that construction came equal parts elation that it may succeed at the next step, and dread that it may not and we’d have to start all over.

The second step was actually three substeps, called the three Reidemeister moves. Anytime you want to create a link invariant, all you need to do is show your creation doesn’t change under each of the Reidemeister moves. We did so for the first two Reidemeister moves in just a weekend. The third move however, had us completely stumped for a full month. While we certainly had ideas during this month, none of them gave a clear solution. What’s more is that we didn’t even really know whether our construction even was invariant under the third Reidemeister move; for all we knew we could have been spending all that time trying to prove something that just wasn’t true. Finally though, after a month of toil, we figured out invariance under the third Reidemeister move.

The excitement upon figuring this out was absolutely incredible. Unfortunately it was a bit short lived; since around two weeks later we created a much much simpler invariant, which when combined with a slight modification of an existing invariant, was actually stronger than our categorification. While this result led to a stronger overall invariant, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit disappointing. Still, it was a good result, and our proof that this invariant was in fact stronger was pretty interesting. Of course there’s no reason to believe that the categorification of biquandle brackets that we created is the only possible such categorification, so there are still exciting ways this research could develop.

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.

After graduating from Ohio State, I still plan to go to graduate school and pursue a PhD in mathematics. This research gave me valuable experience for determining what pursuing a PhD will really involve, and further affirmed my desire to do so. Of course, to get a PhD I first have to get into graduate school, and I believe this research project will greatly bolster my application. We’re also currently working on publishing a paper for this project, and if successful, that will be another factor that helps my graduate school application. In addition, we were able to present our research at the Young Mathematicians Conference, which I will also be able to add to my application. This project also allowed me to develop skills that I’m sure will help me in my future with mathematics, such as presentation skills and effective mathematical communication. Most importantly, this project increased my interest in mathematics, which will propel me to learn much much more in the future.

STEP Reflection

My STEP Signature Project was an undergraduate research project in the College of Public Health. I worked on a biostatistics project focusing on the transmission dynamics of Mumps in the United States.

At the beginning of the project, I was not really sure what to expect.  I did not have any previous experience working in a lab setting.  I had no solid experience applying the steps of the scientific method to a real-world, cutting-edge example.  In addition, I had only a basic understanding of biostatistics, disease modeling, and R programming software.  Throughout the project, I was able to better understand how to construct and implement a research project from beginning question to publication of results.

The changes in my understanding of myself and the world of research came from the experiences and the relationship I built with the professor I worked with over the summer.  Dr. Laura Pomeroy is an assistant professor of environmental public health in the College of Public Health.  She is an expert in the areas of infectious disease transmission and control. The opportunity to work with her was an incredible experience and relationship to build.  I would not have learned so much about the topic without her vast knowledge and support.

Another source of personal transformation came from learning how to use R programming software.  While I had previously been introduced to the software in a statistics course, I was very much a novice at the beginning of the summer.  I used R throughout the project for data collection, cleaning, analyzing, and modeling.  There were numerous times throughout the project where I had to problem-solve with R and although it was challenging, I was able to preserver and teach myself the language. I am now very comfortable with using R software, which I would not be without this project.

The transformation I experienced during my STEP project is valuable in my life because I was able to further confirm my interest in scientific research.  I was also able to make valuable, lasting personal relationships with a professor and other student researchers.  These relationships helped me grow during the project personally and professionally. They also helped expand my professional network for the future.  Learning R was also immensely transformative because it is a very in-demand skill that employers value.  Overall, the research I did over the summer profoundly changed my academic, personal, and profession outlook.

Summer Research 2019: Neuroimmune Dysfunction in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Throughout the summer of 2019, I have worked on a research project at the Institute of Behavioral Medicine Research with a focus on evaluating the contribution of EBV dUTPase to the neuroimmune dysfunction associated with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). The main component of my contribution was conducting gene expression analysis on brains of wild-type or TLR2 knock-out mice injected with EBV dUTPase through qRT-PCR, with additional parts of the research project being continued in the fall semester.

Prior to this project, I had previously spent three years participating in research, however, it was typically limited to preparing materials for an experiment or assisting another lab technician with an experiment. During that time, I learned some of the basic scientific concepts that outlined the research, but once in charge of my own independent project, I was able to gain a much deeper understanding of the science behind the experiments. Most of my courses have centered on the sciences as a pre-medical student, but they have been limited to mainly biology, chemistry, and biochemistry. This project not only improved my knowledge in these areas, but also expanded it to much deeper concepts such as immunology and virology.

The transformation within myself, though, came directly from managing the project. I have previously participated in group projects, as well as completed my own, independent projects for courses at Ohio State, yet none have compared to the skills that are needed to complete an independent research project. This project improved my time management skills, attention to detail, problem solving skills, and ability to communicate ideas such that I believe I have become a better leader and team-member, as well as a better student and scientist.

When conducting the experiments, time management was absolutely necessary in order to conduct the experiments correctly, but also to complete the project in an adequate amount of time. Several steps required incubation periods, however, it was always important to maximize this time in order to prepare other components of the experiment so that the experiment would flow quickly and efficiently. Additionally, on a larger scale, I needed to plan out the timeline of the experiments over several weeks in order to stay on track to complete the gene expression analysis prior to classes beginning once again. Gene expression analysis began with isolating the RNA from the left and right hemispheres of brain samples from nearly twenty mice, then developing the cDNA and conducting qRT-PCR on each sample. This process would take several days, with some overnight wait periods in between, so it was critical that I planned each day out to maximize my time within the week.

Throughout every single step of each experiment, attention to detail was very important to ensure that I was adding the correct amounts of each substrate and buffer at very small quantities, sometimes as small as 1.0 uL, so that the reaction would proceed properly. Attention to detail was especially important when creating the plates for qRT-PCR, which involved ninety-six well plates with each well containing only 20 uL of solution that included less than 10 uL of cDNA. Each well needed an accurate ratio of cDNA to the various buffers, primers, and enzymes in order for DNA amplification to occur.

Even though my attention to detail did greatly improve, mistakes were also made at several points throughout the experiments, and this provided an opportunity for me to work on my problem-solving skills as well as develop better communication skills. When something did go wrong with an experiment, it was important that I communicated these issues with my Principal Investigator as well as the other members of the lab so that we could all work on solving the problem together. When the RNA wasn’t precipitating out correctly during isolation, I communicated this, and we were able to adjust the protocol to include overnight incubations at -20C to increase pellet size. When designing the plates, we were able to configure layouts that allowed for multiple samples to be run at once to improve cost efficiency. When one plate didn’t amplify correctly, I was able to problem solve with the lab technician to determine the mistakes made previously and make adjustments for the next run. Not all communication improvements came out of mistakes, however, as I was able to practice reporting my data during lab meetings each week and receiving feedback on how to improve for the week following.

Following my undergraduate degree, I plan to continue my education in medical school and pursue a career as a physician. On the surface level, the skills I learned in performing academic research were good practice for continuing research throughout my training to become a physician. The soft skills, such as improved time management and effective communication, will also be very beneficial to being a physician and a scientist when communicating with patients or managing my schedule.

More immediately, these skills will help me to become a better student. Improving my problem-solving skills has made me a more curious student and has created a desire to pursue further research and more challenging academic courses so I can continue to develop and apply these skills. This project has also encouraged me to pursue a thesis for research distinction prior to graduation so I can continue my research, as well as improve my abilities to analyze data and draw conclusions from my work.

Beginning a Career in Astronomy Research

What follows is my reflection on my overall STEP signature project. For anyone interested in more details about my time at the telescope, check out my blog here!

For my signature project, I had the opportunity to take part in research. My work focuses on eclipsing binary star systems and the funding from the project allowed me to fly out to Kitt Peak in Arizona to operate the telescopes at MDM Observatory, present my research at a conference, and continue working through the summer.

I wasn’t very confident in myself after freshman year. I struggled with the transition to college and there were times that I worried that I didn’t belong in astronomy. Before this project, I had no idea how research was done, let alone how I would get involved with it. Then I joined STEP. Because I had some funding already taken care of, the first professor I approached agreed to take me on his project. Being a part of research made me significantly more confident in my own abilities and the possibility of a future for me in the field of astronomy. It was like finding somewhere I belong.

I spent my first semester reading papers that overwhelmed me with new information and learning a coding language I’d never even heard of, but I left every research meeting feeling more optimistic about my future than I ever had been before. The next semester, it came time to go observing. My research advisor described collecting data as a dreadfully boring process, so I didn’t expect much. I was just looking forward to the opportunity to visit Arizona. As it turned out, I genuinely loved observing! The process was a bit repetitive, sure, but it was so easy for me to learn how to use the telescopes that before long, I was monitoring both of them while my advisor napped in the adjacent room. Because it was so repetitive, it was easy for me to set the telescopes to take a bunch of data while I stepped outside and stared at the stars. It was the most stars I’ve ever seen in the night sky. The simple act of looking up reminded me that what I was doing really mattered.

I worked with the data collected on this run through the rest of that semester. By January of the following year, I had done enough work to justify attending the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics to present a poster. Being surrounded by other women in my field was reaffirming, especially when many of the undergrads shared my insecurities. I had the opportunity to discuss my experiences with women from many institutions and find common ground. I left it feeling much less alone.

As the end of my junior year approached, I was accepted into the astronomy department’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and had the opportunity to continue my work on this project all summer. Doing research without the distraction of classes made me so much more productive and less stressed. It gave me a glimpse into a possible future, one that felt more attainable than it had while I struggled with class. Over the summer alone I feel like I tripled my research skills and my confidence grew with it. Having financial support to do this was invaluable.

There were points in my academic career where I was legitimately afraid that I didn’t belong here. I still have fleeting moments of uncertainty, where I’m not sure I can make it in this field. Now, it’s easier for me to fight back. When I struggle in classes, I remind myself of how I thrive in research. This STEP Signature Project opened the door for me to realize that. It feels like what I do matters and showed me that I am capable of making contributions to astronomy. Along with this, it has helped me to learn more about what areas of research interest me. This provides me with a clearer path forward. I can say with confidence that my life wouldn’t be the same otherwise

Nikki