STEM Scholars Speak: Thoughts on a Year in Research
The College Prep STEM program, created to help budding scientists gain practical experience solving questions of science, has been a great success, drawing dozens of students every year from every field and discipline. Here, the Radar has compiled interviews from several STEM scholars about their experience: Ami S. (‘17), Emile G. (’17), Kieran H. (’17), and Laura P. (’17). We at the Radar would like to give a huge thank-you to everyone for sharing their experiences!
Q: What drew you to the STEM program?
Laura: I’ve always had a strong interest in math and science and think I likely want to go into a STEM career, but I wasn’t really sure what area specifically, and I wanted to get a better sense of the different possibilities and what a career as a scientist would actually be like.
Emile: I really wanted to figure out if I would enjoy working in a lab environment and doing research, as well as learn exactly how that looks in a lab. I was also really interested in learning interesting fields of science and entering college with a background in research.
Q: What were STEM classes like? What did you learn?
Ami: In the spring we learned how to be prepared in the lab. We had journal clubs which were projects where everyone would research a scientific paper and teach their classmates about what they learned after a couple weeks of research. For example, we learned about the mechanics of a mantis shrimp’s punch. It was really fun, everyone spends time researching stuff they’re interested in. For example, my friend Ethan researched a novel treatment for diabetes in beagle dogs last year. In the fall, we mainly prepared for the STEMposium, where we presented posters and shared our research findings from the summer.
Emile: The Spring semester was the more learning based semester of the two. We each chose a scientific article that we found interesting and we presented it. This was usually one of the two days in the week, the other day of the week was usually centered around learning to do a task that we might do in research, for example, experimental design contests, working out a lab protocol and talking about how to approach it, or even studying the effects of chemical solutions on the development of frog embryos.
Q: What STEM fields most interest you?
Emile: On the application I marked that I was interested in Computer Science and Engineering. I ended up working in a bioengineering lab where I got to write code to analyze the data, so pretty much exactly what I asked for.
Kieran: Engineering, physics, and math are the most interesting to me, but I enjoy learning about any interesting type of science. I enjoy many parts of chemistry and biology as well. You do not know what type of internship you will end up with in STEM, so anyone who applies should be excited about all subjects in STEM.
Q: How was your work/internship over the summer coordinated?
Laura: I worked with Adam and Ami, mentored by Lisa Inserni from Dow Chemical. We were too young to actually work at the chemical plant, although we got to visit it once. We met with her twice a week at school for a month to learn about issues such as process control, energy efficiency, and safety in chemical plant design, specifically in the context of an allyl chloride plant, and she gave us various reading and calculation assignments to do as a group. Then we did a final project of applying the ideas we had learned in designing a corn to ethanol plant.
Kieran: Dr. C sets up everyone’s internships and lets you know sometime in the spring where and when you will be working. The student does have some input on this decision. I worked at the Niyogi Lab at UC Berkeley, a lab in the department of plant and microbial biology that specializes on photosynthesis. My particular project focused on genetically modifying a type of algae so we could study how they protect themselves from high light conditions.
Q: Can you give us a general overview of your project?
Emile: My project was about studying different plastics by growing cracks in them and studying the rates of crack growth in the plastics. The biology component of the lab was that these were plastics that have been or are looking to be used in Total Joint Replacements, which means that these materials are trying to model biological joints.
Ami: Laura, Adam, and I learned about alloy chloride to make ethanol chemical plants. We were trying to discover what was the best way to improve these plants in terms of efficiency. We had to look at many variables beyond the chemical plant like transportation. For example, if you grow corn in Idaho and the chemical plant is in New York, transporting the corn will consume lots of greenhouse gases, which reduces efficiency. The chemical plant where we conducted our research was located in Pittsburg, California, where we worked with _____. Every week we would research a new topic related to efficiency.
Q: What were the most rewarding aspects of your project? The most difficult?
Laura: I really enjoyed learning about the math and logic of the various mechanical structures in a chemical plant. One of the challenges was that we often had problems we didn’t know anything about, and it was difficult to find information online, especially when we were relying on things like patents for the allyl chloride process that weren’t easily accessible or didn’t have the information we needed.
Ami: The most rewarding part of my project was presenting it, but that was really rewarding because it was a culmination of all the hard work that had gone into the research. It was lots of fun! The most difficult part was probably presenting to my mentor over the summer, and then to Dr. C. in the fall. I would be given some time to do research independently, and then I would present my findings to my mentor, which was nerve-wracking and exciting because I had come up with the answer on my own, so I was never entirely sure if it was correct or not. That’s the exciting thing about science, though — learning to trust the process.
Q: How did you feel about the STEM fields before you joined the program, and how do you feel now?
Emile: I was always interested in the STEM Fields, and this internship let me get out there and actually participate in them in a more meaningful way. I don’t feel differently, but it is nice to know how we can apply our Stem knowledge first hand.
Ami: I really want to go into mechanical engineering even more!
Q: How, if at all, has the STEM program influenced your thoughts on possible career paths?
Laura: I learned that one company or plant involves a lot of people each specializing in one tiny area, and that you can make a career from just one of these specialties. I didn’t have a traditional internship in a lab, but from what I’ve heard from others I think I’d likely be more interested in more math-y or theoretical work. I also know that I do really love teaching and would love to be a math or science professor.
Kieran: I learned that I should try and find a subject that really fascinates me. For my mentors and the rest of the Niyogi Lab this topic is photosynthesis. If I don’t find this type of subject, however, I want to experiment in all sorts of things.
Q: Would you recommend this to other students? What sort of students would you most recommend this program to — STEM students, or any student with an interest in the sciences?
Ami: I definitely recommend it. Dr. C is an amazing teacher. The program is fun, and it’s a great summer experience. They’re really looking for someone passionate in science and STEM in general, but it could still be right even if you only like certain fields.
Laura: I think the program was definitely a good experience, whether or not it’s directly connected to careers you would want to spend your life on. In addition to learning about possible STEM careers, we learned a lot about teamwork and about public speaking and how to explain things clearly, which is valuable for almost anything.
Q: Any last comments or experiences from the program you would like to add?
Kieran: You will make mistakes during your internship (I made plenty), but don’t let this put you down — by the end you will feel like an expert in the lab!
Laura: One of our first assignments was to learn about the scientific method and experimental design by trying to design an experiment to test whether an onion under a sick person’s bed really does make them get better. We also had competitions to fill pipet trays quickly at one point, and we gave our practice talks for STEMposium to a tetherball monster named Murph.