STEP Reflection – Undergraduate Research

For my Fellowship, I was the Team Leader for the OhioState team at the 2020 iGEM competition, an international event in which teams create novel projects in the field of synthetic biology. Our project centered around streamlining and promoting genetic biocontainment within our field. Genetic biocontainment is a genetic construct or modification that allows external control of cellular life, and this is generally done as a binary switch between life and death. Biocontainment is a key issue in the implementation of synthetic biology products into the real world, products that have the potential to save countless lives and improve countless more.

I previously had no idea that this kind of tool existed, and now I know that it’s going to be one of the most indispensable tools for the advancement of the synthetic biology field. It had always seemed to me that science had lost a lot of the ingenuity and innovation we see throughout history with, for example, the discovery of DNA and new chemical analysis tools, but this shows me that we still have a long way to go before we’re out of ways to further our fields.

A major part of the iGEM competition is contacting and working with experts in your project’s area of interest. During this project, I met with doctorate students, post-docs, and even a Nobel Laureate! I had always thought that a field as advanced and new as synthetic biology would be difficult to get into and make contacts in, but I’ve already done so. I can use any of these contacts to further myself in this field, and one of my cohorts already secured an internship at MIT in this way!

Furthermore, simply working this closely and for this long with a team required me to develop my interpersonal skills, namely clear communication and getting people to stay productive. As Team Leader, I was charged with organizing the team to optimize our productivity and hold everyone to their commitments and deadlines. With the entire project taking place during the pandemic, I had to accommodate for reduced time and energy for everyone, and we had to narrow our scope to create a high-quality project. Working remotely is always a struggle, and building energy and momentum in a project is nigh impossible. However, we persevered (see photo below for our happy faces!) and secured a Gold Medal, a Special Award nomination, and even a Best in Track award! I’ve never taken lead on anything this large, and certainly not in this circumstance, but it was fun, challenging, and very educational for me to do so!

Genetic biocontainment is a very narrow and under-developed field of study, with very few people devoting much time to it. Much of the work done has been small projects that graduate students have used as a steppingstone to other work. I find this to be a good niche for me to try and fill in my career, as I already have a background in it, and I know exactly who to contact if need be.

The process of researching the initial ideas we had for this project was long and thorough, and I quickly developed a knack for finding the right sources and seeing gaps in knowledge. I’ve also learned how to see the assumptions and real data in papers, and this has made it much easier to boil down papers to the necessary information. I also learned the reverse process, because we had to turn our information into easily understandable graphics and text for a wiki site, poster, and presentation video. Being able to tailor data to a target audience and craft words in a good light for the project is something I’ll be using for my whole life, as every project will have cracks that need to be painted over.

Easily the hardest part of a scientific career is simply getting started. After all, what lab manager wants to hire someone with no experience? And, of course, who you know can be infinitely more important than what you know. This project has given me an excellent start into science in general, and I now have extensive knowledge in a specific field that I may continue to pursue in my career! The STEP fellowship has given me a fantastic opportunity that will make my journey infinitely easier and more enjoyable.

STEP Signature Project Reflection – Undergraduate Research

For my STEP Signature Project, I chose to be the lead of a research project and use the findings from the project to write a paper, which falls under the undergraduate research category. The research study investigates how we can better identify arrhythmogenic substrates in vivo by utilizing a clinically relevant persistent atrial fibrillation (AF) canine model to validate fibrosis visualization in Late Gadolinium Enhanced Cardiac Magnetic Resonance (LGE-CMR).

While completing my STEP Signature Project, my view on what it takes to complete a research project drastically changed. In the beginning, I thought that it would be as simple as completing data analysis, writing the various sections of the paper, and submitting. However, writing and data analysis can occur at the same time to speed up the process. Data analysis often has to be repeated or tried again with different methods. New ideas are constantly brought up, which require more data analysis. All of these aspects of completing a project almost seem endless and make completing the project by a personally-set deadline hard.

Interactions with my PI and coworkers during the STEP Signature Project helped me change how I view research projects and work through all of the difficulties. From discussing the project goals during one-on-one meetings with my PI to holding group meetings with my team, I learned that the process for completing a project is not linear. Often, you have to go back to the drawing board to come up with a new idea to solve an issue or new question. Learning this process expanded my perspective on how open-minded you have to be if you want to successfully perform research.

Going into this project, I had a schedule outlined that would have resulted in the paper being submitted to a journal by October 31st. Unfortunately, numerous factors contributed to this deadline not being met. I had to present for an international conference, write and create figures for our grant submission, and solve various issues with codes used for data analysis. Although these obstacles pushed back finishing my project, they taught me how important time management is when dealing with so many tasks. It was hard to stay on track, but by communicating with everyone I work with, I was able to continue to work on the project while juggling the other deadlines.

While I did not get to complete my paper by October 31st, the findings from this research project will be submitted to a scientific journal within the upcoming month and presented at the Spring Denman Research Forum. With all of the previous deadlines out of the way, I am now able to give this project my full attention to see it to completion. It was difficult to balance everything because I did not expect finishing this project to be so complex, but I have learned that perseverance and patience are key.

This transformation in thinking and understanding is valuable to my life because not every task that I will face will be straightforward. It is important to know how to adapt to situations to be able to complete what is started. Being able to take a step back and reevaluate original plans will be a crucial skill to have as I move forward in life since I want to be a physical therapist. When working in healthcare, the environment is constantly changing, so being adaptable is key. In addition to my future profession, life is never predictable, so always having an open-mind is crucial to surviving in a constantly evolving world.

STEP Post-Project Reflection

I did a research project on discounted cash flow (DCF) valuations for college faculty. I evaluated valuation practices of professional equity analysts, with a focus on DCF valuations from equity research analyst reports on Fortune 500 companies & valuations affected by the COVID crisis. 

My assumptions of what valuating research analyst reports really entailed changed while completing my STEP Signature Project. Originally, I did not really know what valuations were, but after completing this project, I have a much better idea about what equity researchers do and what research analyst reports look like. It has a lot of theory involved and makes many assumptions to derive its valuations on companies. Additionally while completing this project, I learned how crucial it was to balance my time and manage competing priorities because I had a lot of things on my plate. I also realized the importance of teamwork, collaboration, and peers.

The activities during my STEP Signature Project that led to the transformation I discussed is that I would go through multiple research analyst reports at a time that I started to get more familiar with the key indicators in valuations and where to look to find those indicators in those research reports. I also utilized Microsoft Excel to create databases of these valuation reports and their key indicators to analyze the trends in the various research analyst reports and the trends of Fortune 500 companies. I worked with many key indicators such as WACC, discount rate, beta, risk-free rate, market premium, EBITDA multiples, Revenue multiples, Earnings/Sales, etc. that made what I learned in my Corporate Finance classes come to life with real-world scenarios and examples.

For time management, I struggled with that at the beginning of the project but really prioritizing my time was key. I created a Google Calendar of all the key events, dates, and appointments I had to be mindful of. I also created weekly and monthly goals of all the things I wanted to accomplish so that it helped to keep me accountable. By creating a daily to-do list and schedule at the beginning of every day, it helped to structure my day better and properly allocate my time.

When working on these projects, especially when doing independent work, I would often come across roadblocks or when I was unsure of concepts. Having peers around me who I could go to when I had questions was great because they were also able to teach me new concepts, and I am able to teach them things as well. Having a support system of peers was very important so that I did not feel lost. Thus, I came to realize how important it is to establish and maintain relationships to help each other.

This transformation is valuable for my life because all of these transformations from a better understanding of valuations, time management, and teamwork have helped develop me both personally and professionally. Time management and teamwork will continue to be important throughout the rest of my life as I go into my career, and is relevant and applicable to anytime and anywhere needed. Now that I have a better understanding of valuations and research analyst reports on Fortune 500 companies, I know what this work entails, and it has helped me to figure out better which career path I want to pursue in the future as a Finance major.

My STEP Project Experience

Is it too cliché to say that you must take a risk and do something you’ve never done in order to grow?

My name is Amber Cleggett and I am a third year Animal Science student and my STEP Signature Project helped me conquer something I had not yet done before: research. I interned with the Animal Influenza Epidemiology and Ecology Research Project at the Ohio State University in Dr. Andrew Bowman’s Lab. During this one month internship I : attended different county fairs to collect nasal wipe and swab samples (which will be tested for Influenza A strains), read and discussed different articles relating to Influenza and other important topics in the realm of Public Health, learned how to properly disinfect equipment by following biosecurity protocols, and more.

This internship, while short, has drastically changed my outlook on myself, the agriculture industry, research, and more. I had never done research before so the only experience that I had being in a lab was during my chemistry and biology classes. Through this experience, I realized that research goes beyond a laboratory. Most days I was not in the lab and this changed what research was and looked like for me. I also had a change of opinion on animal research. I have written papers in the past arguing against the use of animals in research, but this experience helped me to understand just how important animals are in research. Furthermore, this internship provided me with first-hand experience of what animal research can look like and it is a lot different than the documentaries that I have seen regarding the ethics behind animal research.

Working in a research lab that focuses on a zoonotic disease during a pandemic was a very interesting and critically important task. The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak raised awareness about public health and its role and importance to society. Doing routine surveillance of Influenza A in swine during the pandemic gave me an opportunity to see how public health measures and protocols are perceived and utilized in society and gave me first hand industry experience. I will be better prepared to set guidelines for both human and animal safety, as well as effectively communicate the risks associated with the problem and our possible solutions later in my career.

This internship has highlighted the importance of communication and language for me. It proved just how important effective communication and critical and accurate scientific writing is. Each week our lab would have Journal Club- a Zoom call where we discussed an article that one member of the lab submitted. I do not have much experience with scientific writing but through Journal Club I was exposed to articles in which I learned a lot from and not just content wise. In one Journal Club, two of our lab members tore an article to shreds simply because of the writing style and use of words. The content of the article was fine, however, the means of communicating the topic were not and that made the article unsuccessful in its goal to educate the audience on the topic. I learned that successful communication is not merely about what words are said and which ones are not. Comprehension is necessary for communication to be considered successful.

My research experience in Dr. Bowman’s lab was anything but boring. I realized that research was not a stagnant field and that it is not something that is ridiculously hard to do once you have the proper training and guidance. The environment that I worked in was filled with dedicated and caring individuals who made sure that I was properly trained for any given task and it made me a lot more comfortable and confident. However, when I was not confident of myself or just unsure of what to do, they never ridiculed me or made me feel bad about having to ask questions. Furthermore, they never pushed me to do anything I was not comfortable doing- working in a research lab comes with its risk, which are heightened during a pandemic and further complicated by a lab that is expanding in its duties and outreach.  This type of care and mentorship has made me eager to continue doing research and it has also helped me solidify my career aspirations (a food animal veterinarian who works in Public Health- working particularly with swine).

This experience pushed me out of my comfort zone in many ways and for that I am grateful. I learned many skills that I can and will use throughout my academic and professional career. Personally, this experience has increased my confidence, helped me improve my time management skills, and improve my discipline. My time management skills have improved because I was given a list of tasks and a projected timeline in which I had complete those tasks. I had to get creative sometimes to make sure that all my tasks were completed which meant completing paperwork while on our way to a fair or running a load of laundry and cleaning equipment at the same time.  My discipline has improved because of my very weird work schedule. Sometimes we left for a fair at 3 am (like when we went to Frankfort, Indiana), while other times the fair was at 10 pm. This flexibility in my schedule meant that I needed to be well rested (so I had to stay off social media, put my phone away, and go to sleep!), but also that I had to get everything else that I needed to do done before I went to the lab. There wasn’t much time for me to procrastinate so this experience forced me to do tasks as I got them even when I didn’t want to.

The most important thing that this experience has taught me is how to make the best out of every situation. This summer has been a crazy one and it has been hard to stay sane with the news, radio, and social media hitting us with everything that could possibly go wrong. Working in a research lab during a pandemic definitely made the experience different but it has shown me that you can have fun while socially distancing and learning. This internship has emphasized getting creative and learning to step back and take a deep breath and try again. I am glad that I had this opportunity and I am happy to say that I will continue working in Dr. Andrew Bowman’s Lab on the Animal Influenza Epidemiology and Ecology research program (… and whatever else they tell me to do 😊 ).