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STEM Interview: Hannah M.

Photography by Lena M. ’15

What was your research about and where was your research?

I was at the Richard Harland lab at UC Berkeley, and my mentor was Amy Shyer. We were studying embryonic development– how a fertilized egg became a fully functional organism. My project was looking specifically at chickens. We were studying patterns on chickens that show up very regularly among all chickens, and that specific pattern was feather bud development. So, on the back of the chicken around day 6 or 7 after the egg is fertilized, the feather buds start to show up. They show up in very regular rows and start to spread out in a very regular pattern. We were trying to investigate why the pattern was so regular, and what were the forces that made it so regular; essentially, what were the factors forming that regularity. Amy’s theory, which is a pretty new one, is that there are physical forces acting on that cell, in addition to the changes inflicted by DNA. We were trying to identify what mechanical forces would be working on that development. Our theory was that skin tension affected the regularity and growth of the feather buds. To test this hypothesis, we stained the skin cells during growth of the chicken to look at the regularity of the pattern when we changed the skin tension. It was really exciting and really interesting research, and I enjoyed doing all that.

So what was your part in the research?

I was an assistant to her research. Once I learned the protocols, I would do the experiments myself. I would stain the slides with the chicken bits or I would end up dissecting the embryos. It was very hands-on and exciting. Amy was pretty much there all the time. She taught me how to do it: she told me how to make the solutions for all the experiments. Sometimes she would go and let me work on the experiments, but she would do the analysis. So I got some freedom, but Amy was always there to make sure I was on the right path.

Did you have to do any background research before? Any studying on your own?

I looked at a few papers that she sent me and I sort of figured out what experiments we were going to do. I also studied the anatomy of the chicken by myself. It was mostly Amy who would assign me papers to read. Other than my biology class or what I learned in the actual STEM class, I wasn’t doing a lot of outside research. And I’ve never been in a lab before, so everything was totally new, and everyone involved was very good about training me and getting me to understand what I was supposed to be doing there.

What did you take away from this experience?

Oh man. I got a firmer understanding of what it’s like to go into research. It’s a very slow process. I was there for four and a half weeks, and in the grand scheme of the experiment, we got very little. We did a lot of experiments; I learned a lot about how to make the experiments and what to do in the future. Overall, I saw how small four weeks is in the grand scheme of actual research. Usually a PhD is about 5 years.

Was this research part of her PhD?

Amy’s a postdoc, so she already obtained her PhD and now she’s doing more research. I was working with some PhD students, and they were maybe 3 or 4 years in, and they were still trying to find solid results. It’s a slow process, but I think having spent time in a lab now, I now realize what it takes to get a PhD in biology and I think I would love to do it myself.

What did you do in the STEM class?

I definitely learned how to read research papers and understand where the information in textbooks was coming from. I have so much more appreciation for those people who conduct these experiments that later become common knowledge because it’s really ingenious and it takes a lot of troubleshooting. I got lucky in my experiments in that most of the time they worked, but I know a majority of experiments don’t work, and you just have to continue troubleshooting and going back, persevere in your research because eventually you can hope that it will work, but a lot of the times it won’t, and you just have to deal with it.

I also learned how to present data on a PowerPoint slide in a much more concise way than I’ve learned in other classes. Dr. C went around and was like “So, this is the size of the font that you should have on your slides.” I’m not taught that in any other class, and she just went through, telling us “this is what you want on your slides” or “this is what makes it look good”. Right from the day I learned it in STEM, I was able to apply it to other classes.

The best part about this class was that I’ve learned a lot of applicable knowledge for research, presenting data, public speaking, making an argument, coming up with an experiment, and asking questions. Just the idea of asking questions that you can then research is just not something that comes naturally to me, and I learned to do so through this class, which is amazing, and you can’t really put a price on that.

Do you dabble in the sciences on your own? After school or In your free time?

I’ve always been interested in medicine, so biology has always been interesting, but I’ve never done research before. I don’t spend a lot of time reading about science really, so this whole thing was very new to me. I’m not the sort of person who would go out and make an experiment myself. Which is unfortunate. I don’t think I have enough time but it was interesting to see where I can get started with that.

So this planted a seed. Do you plan pursuing a science major in college?

Yeah, I think so. Again, this research got me inspired, so I think I might do some research in the future. It doesn’t have to be biological, you know, it can be any sort of research. I’ve learned the seed of knowledge for any type of research. So I know I want to do it sort of academically, maybe as a PhD, but even just in college, starting undergraduate research, asking questions in that way, and finding time to do that because I realize it’s more important in my life, because I really enjoy it!

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