USS 2018 Virtual Roundtable

Name, major, graduation year, and summer project

MS: Mitchell Singstock, 2019, Chemogenetic Modulation of the VTA-mPFC Neural Circuit.

EW: Emily Wyatt, Biology, 2020, looking immune and behavioral results of a Fragile X gene knockdown (using RNAi) in crickets.

RR: Rosie Ries, Geology and Physics, 2020, Hydraulic fracturing induced earthquakes in Oklahoma.

AV: Abigail VanGorder, Bachelor of Science in Biology with Premedical Studies co-major and Medical Sociology and Disability Studies minors, 2019, a field research project titled Indirect Effects of Deer Herbivory on Insect Pest Populations in Soybean Fields.

What was the most challenging part of your USS project? What was the most rewarding?

MS: The most challenging part of research was not having a clear metric of success. In this way, when I was not getting the results I hoped for, the steps for figuring out why was a difficult process. It required me to look for faults in my techniques and understandings, a humbling but gratifying process because I developed greatly as a researcher from the experience. The most rewarding was imaging neurons under a microscope and seeing that my surgeries actually worked… well, at least in part.

EW: The most challenging part of my USS project was the strict timelines. When you work with live animals/insects/etc, you often are restricted on what days you can perform experiments. That left us with a lot of days that were tremendously busy, and a lot where we could do very little work. The most rewarding was seeing success after a string of failures. I had to figure out how to modify an old lab protocol, because I discovered it was incorrectly put together. It was an amazing feeling to look at the data and see the experiment actually work for the first time.

RR: I think the most challenging part of my USS project was the work I had to do to get what we learned ready to be presented since that required a lot more writing as opposed to just computational work. I also have to say that in the end preparing everything for presentation, working on how to describe it, explain its significance, etc. was probably the most rewarding part as well because that was when everything went from being numbers we were working with to being something that would have meaning to someone who hadn’t processed all the data themself.

AV: The fieldwork and data collection were very labor-intensive for our small lab team, leading us to adjust our schedule throughout the summer. What has been most rewarding is that the lab has given me responsibility for the project. I’ve continued processing data, presented our initial findings at a conference in Indianapolis, and prepared to write our results for publication with independent research and readings.

How did you manage the workload?

MS: Over the summer, there is ample time to get work done. During the year, it comes down to a mix of google calendar and grit.

EW: My graduate student mentor and I sat down every Friday to write a list of tasks for each day of the following week. We had several strict timelines to keep, so it was essential that we kept track of what day we needed to do each task. As we did the tasks, we checked them off our list. That helped us to understand how much work/time we had left for each day. Another thing I did to save time was to do small tasks - like entering data into a spreadsheet - while I was waiting for something else to finish. Those 20min chunks of time add up.

RR: For me there wasn’t a problem working on my project during the week over the summer. I basically assigned various tasks time blocks and scheduled it somewhat like one would a class schedule. I had lunch at nearly the same time every day, made sure to start the day’s work at nearly the same time every day, and finished work for the day at nearly the same time every day. Some reading of relevant papers I did in the evening as “homework."

AV: My data collection, while labor intensive, was over the summer. Now that classes have begun, I made a schedule to process the data I collected that realistically accounts for my academic and extracurricular time commitments.

What was your experience like working with your mentor? How did you find your mentor?

MS: I became interested in Dr. McMurray’s work when he spoke at one of my classes for the FYRE program. Afterwards, I reached out to him and found a position in his lab. I could not speak more highly of my mentee experience. Dr. McMurray is incredibly dedicated to his student’s success. As a testament to this, during my year and a half in his lab he has encouraged me to present at a half-a-dozen conferences, apply for multiple URA’s, write work for publication, and, next week, I will be presenting at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. I would not have been able to accomplish nearly as much as I have without his guidance.

EW: I found my mentor through a job posting. I was hired to do lab maintenance, and at the end of the semester, had heard about a project going on in the lab that I was interested in. I spoke to both the faculty member and the graduate student heading the project, and they were happy to let me join the research team at the start of the next semester. I never worked directly with the faculty member heading the lab; she had her own USS student and was running a completely different project. I communicated with my faculty member through weekly lab meetings, and of course I could always ask a questions if I needed to. Instead, I worked daily with a graduate student. We collaborated on the project and often worked on the same experiment together. She was also my main resource for advice.

RR: I had worked with my mentor during the two school years prior to my USS, so I was lucky in that I already knew some of what he would expect to see, how much was considered a reasonable day’s work, how best to get in contact with him, etc before the summer started. It made the transition into the USS pretty seamless from my point of view, the only difference being I was the only undergraduate he was working with during the summer so he had a little more time to work with me than he does during the school year when I have to run to classes and there are other students around that also need mentoring/help.

AV: I took Dr. Crist for Honors Ecology my sophomore year when he offered positions to be a Student Research Assistants over the summer for his lab. I worked on graduate student projects for that summer and through the academic year. The next summer, the lab was supportive and encouraging of pursuing a project for myself.

Any tips for the application/general advice?

MS: Make sure you actually care about your research question, because if you don’t no one else will. And if you do, selling it to people will be a whole lot easier. Also, why spend a summer doing something you don’t care about? The reality is that there is a lot of delayed gratification in research, so if your question isn’t important it will be really easy to quit.

EW: Try to be realistic about how much time you actually have. Think about some of the things that could go wrong when you do the project - and therefore take up more time than you thought they would. You don’t need to limit yourself, but be aware that you may have to adjust your timeline as the summer goes on.

RR: I would just say that when you go to decide on a project, you should know why the potential results are important. Make sure that the exercise isn’t just for you to do research, but that the research itself has meaning. If you can’t clearly articulate to someone outside of your field “why does this project matter?” then you either need to find a different project or think more carefully on why you want to do what you want to do.

AV: Meeting with your mentor to have a solid plan before submission would be my best advice. Your plan may change as you come across new information throughout the project, but beginning from a clear outline of goals for your proposal will keep you focused.

Any other general thoughts?

MS: If you’re interested in research, the best time to reach out to a professor is now. If they have space, they will rarely turn down free labor.

EW: If you’re interested in doing a USS project- whether you’re already part of a research group or not- ask! Professors get money and recognition out of this too, and more than likely they’ll be willing to help you come up with and implement a project. You can even ask to do a USS as soon as you join a research group, since you’ll have the whole spring semester to get training - another member of my lab actually applied for (and won!) the award before he had ever done a day’s work in the lab.

RR: The USS program is a great opportunity to both do research if you know you are headed for a research oriented field, but also to try out the research process if you don’t know whether you want to do it or not. Don’t think because you do the USS that you have to go to graduate school in the field you did your USS in.

AV: People are often confused when they hear I did an agricultural field project, but I’m pursuing medical school. I always respond that from the USS project, I am learning scientific literacy and writing, study design, data processing and organization, and how to be an efficient researcher. These skills are universally applicable to my future endeavors. Don’t feel that the project subject you pursue has to perfectly align with your future career goals!