Research

Experimenting with Undergraduate Research

by Olivia Corvino

I began my undergraduate career at the University of Rhode Island (URI), and it seemed that from day one I was told of the importance of joining a research lab. The advice I received sounded daunting. I was told to look up the research labs in my major and see if any of the descriptions match my interests, but as a freshman in college I did not yet know my interests.

I began with the professors who were right in front of me. They were an amazing resource not only for the research that they are doing in their labs, but they were also aware of the types of research that other professors were engaged in. I started the conversations by asking if they were taking undergraduate students to work in their labs. I would then ask them to explain what their research was like and if I would be able to shadow a member of the lab for a day. I got a good understanding of the overarching topic that the lab was researching, but was not always told what my responsibilities would be once I became a member. So, before shadowing I would prepare a list of questions to ask the student, including: “What would a typical day in the lab look like for me if I were to join this lab?” This gave me a better idea of what I would be doing each day and if it fit my interests and skillset. After this, I signed up for an independent study for the fall of my sophomore year.

In the meantime, I got an email from my department head at URI about a summer research opportunity run by the UConn Department of Nutritional Science and funded by the USDA called Bridging the Gap. I applied and was accepted, and spent the summer after my freshman year learning how to write a literature review, while many other members of the program got to be in labs with more hands-on work. It wasn’t until two years later that I realized how valuable learning that how to do a lit. review would be!

Returning to URI in my sophomore year, I joined a community-based nutrition lab. There, I met with a weekly focus group for people who had acquired neurological impairments, whether they were from a stroke, car accidents, Parkinson’s disease, etc. I delivered nutrition education to them through fun and interactive games and by providing a healthy snack. I would then draw their blood to measure their plasma lipids. As much as I loved participating in this weekly group, I knew that community nutrition was not what I was passionate about, and after my second semester in that lab I began looking elsewhere.

Over the next summer, I went home to the New Haven area and decided to see what local research opportunities I could find. I went online and looked up research labs at Yale University and sent out emails with my resume to the principal investigator (PI) of lab that captured my growing interests. After sending about ten emails, I finally received a “yes” reply! I spent that summer in a food science-based nutrition lab working with food, people, blood samples, and Excel, and learned to screen patients for research studies. Being in a food science lab only confirmed that community nutrition was not for me — I wanted something more hands on. However, food science didn’t completely fit either, so I continued looking.

Having decided by this time to transfer to UConn, I began emailing research labs at UConn during the summer, hoping to join one in the fall semester. Unfortunately, every PI had a full lab. Initially, I found having to take a break from research upsetting, but the right research experience is sometimes a matter of timing. That fall, I found a PI who would be my professor the following semester who had an opening in his lab. We met and I asked my role in the lab and he ensured me that I would be putting in minimal time and that undergraduate students do not do very much hands on work. This was not ideal, but I felt that any exposure was better than no exposure. Soon after meeting with that PI, Dr. Ji-Young Lee gave a guest lecture in one of my classes, and at the end of her presentation she mentioned that she was looking for undergraduate students for her bench-based research lab for the first time in years. Since I was still looking for a lab, I approached her at the end of her lecture to tell her that I was interested, and after meeting to go over what her lab entailed, I had to make a decision. I asked the opinions of peers, professors and advisors whether I should enroll in a labor-relaxed lab where I would still expand my knowledge or join a lab with a reputation of being intense. After some deliberation, I enrolled in an independent study with the more demanding lab for the following spring.

Dr. Lee’s lab surpassed my expectations for what being an undergraduate student in a research lab could mean, and I am happy to still be there today. Every day I am doing hands-on experiments, culturing my own cell line and performing real-time PCRs (Polymerase chain reactions). I have worked my way through six, nine and now twelve hours a week in the lab and even have my own lab bench and set of equipment. Since I was able to experience other forms of research, I can be confident in my love for this lab and have now made the decision to stay in this lab for a master’s degree.

If I were able to give advice to anyone currently looking to get involved in research, I would say, don’t worry about choosing the wrong lab! You never know until you try. Professors are very understanding and empathetic that you are looking for your best match. I was always uncomfortable telling my PIs that I was leaving their lab, especially future professors of mine, and each time I was met with encouragement and compassion. There is no wrong lab to spend time in because every research lab that you join gives you a new set of skills and a better understanding of the field as a whole. I have been a member of four research labs in my undergraduate career and it has not only expanded my breadth of knowledge, but also given me insight into my goals for the future.

NRE Major? What’s is that, exactly?

by Hannah Desrochers

Every holiday that I spend with my family, I find myself explaining exactly what a Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) major is, and what I plan to do with it in the future. Many of my friends at UConn think that I am in Environmental or Animal Science. How did I get involved in such a little known major? 

The author with Loki at Honeyguide Ranger Camp, South Africa.

Truth be told, I was drawn in after a discussion with Dr. Ortega, one of the NRE faculty members. After just one semester within NRE, I had the opportunity to study ecology abroad in South Africa, and I knew that my future was within this field. I was able to learn about elephants, rhinos, lions, and much more within their natural setting, while also getting some hands-on animal care experience with the camp caracal, Loki. The learning experiences that occurred during my three weeks on the game reserve felt vastly different from any other type of learning I had experienced before, and I was eager to continue those experiences back home at UConn. It was fascinating to see just a small example of the opportunities that are available across the globe to study wildlife.  

I underestimated the height of the waders I would need!

Since then, I have found myself outside for nearly all of my labs, and for a fair share of my lectures as well. Every semester I have been in classes that have allowed me to do everything from taking water samples in waist deep water, to setting up trail cams to test a hypothesis on what animals inhabit certain areas of campus. It baffles me when I speak to friends in other colleges, who spend all day stuck inside a traditional classroom. Going into college, I was undecided, but I knew that I wanted to go into a profession where I wouldn’t necessarily be stuck behind a desk all day. The College of Agriculture, Health & Natural Resources  as a whole, and specifically Natural Resources, has made that goal a reality. 

Just the other day, I visited the Bronx Zoo as part of one of my classes to study mammals. I learned more than I ever could in a classroom, and got to do so out in the fresh air, face to face with amazing animals. Through this experience, I learned about the role of zoos in conservation, while also learning about feeding habits, social structures and many other biological facts. For example, did you know that rhinos are odd-toed ungulates, meaning they are actually related to horses, zebras and tapirs? As a student within the Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation concentration of NRE, it was fascinating to see how conservation is woven into the mission of the zoo. Since my primary interest within NRE is wildlife, I have helped widen my experience and knowledge with a minor in animal science. My interest in animals is purely wildlife, not livestock, which is why I chose NRE over Animal Science, but my minor has helped fill out my understanding in topics such as genetics and reproduction. My experience within the Animal Science minor has also allowed me to work with my dairy heifer, Leah, for a semester and show her in the Little I show! 

As a NRE student, I view my major as one that allows me to get hands-on with everything I am learning in a classroom, while preparing me for a future in wildlife research. I am interested in both animal behavior and human impacts on wildlife, and hope to educate the public on how to better improve the world for humanity and the species that coexist with us. The experiences I have gained have helped to shape my goals for the future, and have helped me expand my worldview. 

 

It Takes a Herd to Make A Difference

Vaccines are considered to be one of the greatest achievements in the history of public health. Smallpox was officially declared to be an eradicated disease in 1980 (the last recorded case was in Somalia in 1979) (1). Cases of poliomyelitis (polio) have dropped to only 22 reported cases in 2017 from nearly 350,000 cases in 1988 (2). These landmark achievements can be attributed to the success of modern vaccines.  Despite these huge successes, anti-vaccination movements have been around since Edward Jenner created the first smallpox vaccine in the early 1800s. Although times have changed, anti-vaccination movements have remained relatively consistent (3). Vaccine critics have expressed a wide variety of concerns, most of which are with regards to safety and efficacy (3,4).

“If vaccines are so effective, why are there so many people that refuse vaccines?”

The modern anti-vaccination movement can be Continue reading

Impostor syndrome: Feeling like a fraud is common among students

Amtec StaffingIt wasn’t until a mentor mentioned to me, it sounds like you have impostor syndrome that I realized what I had been feeling about my work ethic is actually a common phenomenon shared by many people. It’s disorder that is actually documented in scientific literature. As an aspiring scientist, documentation in scientific journals tells me that this syndrome isn’t some rumor or fad, but is observed in many people, especially students. It reassured me to know that other people feel the same way I do about my work ethic. However, I did not really understand impostor’s syndrome until I was watching a Talks with Google presentation given by Frank Abgnale, current FBI agent and former fraudulent commercial air pilot, doctor, lawyer, and expert check counterfeiter. Anyone who’s ever seen Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio knows that Abgnale did not just feel like a fraud, he literally was one. It wasn’t Mr. Abgnale that was consoling me, but a computer engineer at Google that asked him for advice about her impostor syndrome. For me this was huge, Google is a world renowned, transformative company that must hire some of the most creative and intelligent people. Yet some still feel that they are not good enough at their jobs.

Dr. Valerie Young explains that there are five different types of impostor syndrome; you can read about all five types in this Fast Company article. The type that I find myself expressing is titled “the expert.” People with this type of impostor syndrome struggle with Continue reading

A Part of Something Greater

Working on the isolation of fatty acids from Arctic Greenland Killer Whale samples.
Working on the isolation of fatty acids from Arctic Greenland Killer Whale samples.

Two years ago, I began looking for research opportunities to get involved with. As a pre-veterinary student, I was looking for research experience to add to my resume. But unbeknownst to me, this opportunity opened my eyes to something bigger than just working in a laboratory. I now perceive the world in a different light and understand the importance of research. I have grown as an individual because of the knowledge I have attained.

When I inquired on the types of research professors at UConn are conducting came across a topic that really interested me. Dr. Melissa McKinney, an assistant professor in the Natural Resources Department, explained how she collects data to evaluate the anthropogenic effects on Killer Whale feeding habits and bio-accumulation of chemical contamination.

As a new student, I worked on an experiment that resulted in the isolation of fatty acids from blubber samples of killer whales and several other kinds of marine mammals, as well as samples from prey fish species. The measurement and comparison of fatty acids is a useful tool in obtaining the fatty acid profile of an individual animal. We can compare each individual’s profile and determine their food source. Due to global warming and Continue reading

Elephant Crossing

Collecting samples in the field
Collecting samples in the field

Most days at work, I drive my car to a climate-controlled office and sit at cubicle working with a data set, or in a conference room discussing a research project. I try at avoid rush hour traffic in Hartford on my way back to Storrs. Last month at work however, I rode on the back of a motorbike over narrow dirt roads through lush vegetation and paddy fields. I sat outside colorfully painted homes with the participants of the very same research project. I had to be sure to make it back to the field house before the wild elephants came out because they tend to chase down bikes.

Through my internship with the Health Research Program, I had the opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka over winter break and work with research assistants in the field. As a dual degree student with Allied Health Sciences (CAHNR) and Anthropology (CLAS), my internship was already the perfect combination of my academic interests. I work under a medical anthropologist and help study factors associated with the progression of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lankan agricultural communities, where the disease is endemic and a major public health concern. Factors include environmental exposures, occupational hazards and behaviors, and other clinical components. This means that our research team is made up of experts from the fields of nephrology, environmental science and statistics as well. I had been studying issues relating to the CKDu problems for months, but just a few weeks in Sri Lanka completely changed my understanding of the disease, the families it affects, and the nature of the research.

Visiting Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Visiting Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

I always wanted to study abroad, and as my college career was wrapping up, it seemed like it would be something I simply “didn’t get around to.” When my mentor at UCHC and I realized how well it would work out if I were to travel to Sri Lanka at this timepoint, I knew we had to make it happen. I was able to make meaningful contributions to our team and learn about global health and international research in the process. This trip was the highlight of my college career and will help me in my future studies as I pursue public health in graduate school.

I would encourage anyone interested in research, traveling abroad, or both to actively seek out resources on campus such as the Office of Undergraduate Research and Education Abroad to learn about their diverse array of programs.

I am grateful for this opportunity and I could not have had this experience without the financial support from the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Health Research Program. I am also endlessly thankful to my boss who has been travelling to Sri Lanka for much of his career, and the other members of the research team who have also traveled to the same area as I in the last year, for all their advice and support. Lastly, I’m thankful to the University of Peradeniya, the researchers in Sri Lanka partnering on this project, and the participants who were happy to sit with me and tell me about their experiences.

From Cows to Confidence: Personal Growth in Undergraduate Research

Some of the members of Dr. Govoni’s lab and Dr. Reed’s lab explored Baltimore after conference sessions! (Left to right: Veronica Pleasant (UG), Mary Wynn (G), Dominique Martin (G), and Helen Ianniti (UqG)).
Some of the members of Dr. Govoni’s lab and Dr. Reed’s lab explored Baltimore after conference sessions! (Left to right: Veronica Pleasant (UG), Mary Wynn (G), Dominique Martin (G), and Helen Ianniti (UqG)).

One of the scariest parts about being a freshman in the Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) learning community was the constant encouragement to explore undergraduate research. I also knew that as a pre-veterinary student, finding a place in a laboratory would be a really helpful experience. Fast forward to end of freshman year: I was panicking, emailing professor after professor looking for a place in a lab. After many unanswered emails, someone pointed out to me that the Faculty Director of WiMSE, Dr. Kristen Govoni, would be the perfect person to ask! I’m very grateful that I did! About 18 months later, I’ve been approved for two Supply Awards from the Office of Undergraduate Research, assisted in a project involving young ram lambs, a project involving dairy calves, and travelled to Baltimore, Maryland for the American Society of Animal Science Annual Meeting and Trade Show. I presented my first poster at the Fall Frontiers Convention this month, in fact!

Although the above laundry list of small accomplishments is something I’m very proud of, I am infinitely prouder of the skills and confidence I have gained from this laboratory. When I first began, I had no idea what an actual research lab does all day! The graduate student and the post-doctoral fellow in the lab taught me everything I needed to know to assist a much larger project. When I first began sectioning on a cryostat (it looks like a mini deli meat slicer), I was nervous, seeking approval. As time progressed, and the sheep study last spring began, I grew more confident. I gained inches in confidence, not miles, but I still view that as progress.

Last spring, Dr. Govoni asked the undergraduates in the lab (three of us, at the time), to each write an OUR grant proposal. It’s an application for undergraduate project funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research at UConn. This was my first experience in scientific writing, and it was pretty rough, at first. As I began to understand what we were doing in the lab and how it could be applied to real life situations, farmers, and animals, I realized the potential maternal nutrition research could have on the public. Throughout the proposal drafting process, I learned how to take constructive criticism, and write scientifically in a way that still emphasized the importance of animal research.

I think the hardest part of being an undergraduate in a fully functional research laboratory is feeling stupid or ignorant. As undergraduates, we’re almost naturally going to be the least educated person in the room, and the scientists we work under are experts in their fields. However, we also have to remember that they were undergraduates once too, and that we can better ourselves learning from them. The biggest take-home from my experience is this: never stop just because you have no idea what you’re doing; you never know who might help you realize your hidden potential!

My First Professional Conference

Mindy on the Tampa conference center steps overlooking the water
Mindy on the Tampa conference center steps overlooking the water

I have always had a love for the environment and the water, so naturally, when choosing my major I picked one that incorporated all of my interests – Natural Resources. Coming into this field I really did not have a specific path I wanted take and was open to guidance. I joined clubs and started research to try and see which environmental aspects caught my interest. However, it wasn’t until my research lab sent out an email about the American Fisheries Society annual meeting that I found the perfect opportunity to explore my field. Whether it was attending multiple symposiums or networking with some of the most influential and intelligent fisheries managers, policy makers, and biologists the possibilities were endless.

The schedule of events for the annual meeting, along with the August 2017 fisheries magazine
The schedule of events for the annual meeting, along with the August 2017 fisheries magazine

Professional meetings are a perfect time to gain skills and knowledge that you would not be able to experience back at home. I spent most of my time attending some of the 74 symposiums, all of which had different foci. Some of these topics included fish health management, biochemical tropic markers, lionfish, large oil spills, and more! Since my university research and experience span from freshwater fish to saltwater fish and everything in between I made sure to go to a diverse array of seminars. I was very overwhelmed at first because there was so much to chose from, however, seminar after seminar I realized which field I was more interested in than others. My personal favorite being Swirling, Jumping, Burping and Farting: Pre-Spawning Aggregation Behaviors of Bonefish (Albula vulpes) by Andy J. Danylchuk. The intriguing title led many to his meeting room and his pre-spawning aggregation findings were incredible. I also attended a very valuable talk on the future of the nation’s fisheries and aquatic resources. During this seminar I received Continue reading

Start-Up Your Research Career

The summer 2016 interns and their mentors on presentation day.
The summer 2016 interns and their mentors on presentation day.

Did you ever have a product idea or insight that never got beyond the imagination stage? Many people do, but few people have experience with entrepreneurial startup companies that take the big leaps necessary to develop ideas into new services or technologies that create a market or meet customer needs. This may seem like a daunting idea to start your own company, but UConn has developed the Technology Incubation Program which provides facilities and services to support start-up companies and to promote technology development in the state of Connecticut. There are facilities at the UConn Storrs, Farmington, and Avery Point campuses which all provide laboratory and office space, access to instruments and equipment, and business and financial planning to startup companies.

In the laboratory checking for viability and counting cells on the microscope.
In the laboratory checking for viability and counting cells on the microscope.

Although you may not be ready to jump in and start your own company, you can still learn what it’s like to work for a start-up through the UConn-TIP Bioscience, Entrepreneurship & STEM Internship Program. This program was designed to pair undergraduate, graduate, and recent graduate students in the STEM field with one of the start-up companies in the UConn TIP program. During the ten week internship, the student will work on a project created by their sponsoring TIP mentor, and will attend a variety of workshops focused on career development, networking, preparing for grad/med school, and specific technology based talks.

This past summer, I was paired with a company called ImStem Biotechnology as a TIP intern at the Farmington UConn Health campus. ImStem aims to provide a cell therapy product using human pluripotent stem cells in order to treat a variety of human autoimmune disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. My specific project was to culture the stem cell product with human immune cells from various donors to detect for any activation of the immune cells. This project was important for the company because in order to move a drug onto the market, the FDA requires a series of safety studies to be performed to assure that the drug will not adversely affect the health of the patient. The data that I collected and analyzed was used in the proposal to the FDA for the continuation of ImStem’s drug development. At the end of the internship period, each student is required to Continue reading

Tips on Finding Student Employment

Going to college is an amazing experience both academically and socially, but it can be very expensive, as most students know. Tuition, housing, food, gas, utilities, and school supplies can add up to quite a large amount. On top of that, any additional costs such as season basketball tickets, concert tickets, and daily trips to the Dairy Bar can really put a strain on your budget.

Getting a job while attending school is an excellent way to offset some of the many expenses incurred at college. In addition to this, having a job while attending college can help build your resume while you are earning a degree which can give you an advantage in the job field after graduation. Also, you won’t have to experience the fear of missing out on any once in a lifetime opportunities such as studying abroad or taking a trip with friends for spring break.

I am staining a set of Western Blot strips for a Lyme disease test at the CVMDL.
I am staining a set of Western Blot strips for a Lyme disease test at the CVMDL.

A great place to start your job search is by using the employment resources offered by the university through the UConn student employment website. There is a job search engine where you can set your preferences and look at the available jobs and see what qualifications are necessary. Job opportunities range from working at a dining hall, to driving vans for community outreach, to working in a lab, or working at the gym. There are many jobs to choose from and the postings are updated regularly, so check back often if nothing fits your preferences. You can also visit the Student Financial Aid Services office on the first floor of the Wilbur Cross Building which contains student employment services. They can answer any questions and assist with filling out the necessary paperwork for an on-campus job.

Another employment option is working at a privately owned business on or near campus. Storrs center has many businesses including Moe’s, Geno’s Grille, and CVS which all hire students regularly. With all the new construction in Storrs center, new businesses are opening often so keep an eye out for help-wanted flyers. There are also many businesses along North Eagleville Road including Dunkin Donuts and Baja Café that hire students.

I have had an on-campus job working in the serology department at the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (CVMDL) for the past two and a half years. I stumbled upon the opportunity when one of my professors mentioned that the lab needed student workers. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience because I have received hands on training in diagnostic technique for pathogens such as Salmonella, Equine Infectious Anemia, Avian Influenza, and Lyme disease. In addition to this, I have met some amazing staff members in the Pathobiology department who have given valuable advice on classes, internships, and my future career. The professors and staff from your department can be great resources, so keep an eye out for any opportunities that may come your way. Finding employment opportunities within your field of interest can be a rewarding and valuable experience, and can help pay the bills!