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In hindsight, failing biology my freshman year of college was the best thing to happen to my career in science. It was a rude awakening when that first exam came back marked with a big red “D”. It was even more upsetting when the second and third exams followed suit because that meant my failure was statistically significant. Yet, it was only after failing that I realized how much I actually wanted to be a member of the scientific community – and how hard I would have to work to achieve that goal. The following semester I remediated biology and passed with flying colors. I went on to teach that very same course just a few short years later. Ultimately, experiencing this brush with failure is what led me to pursue a graduate degree. If my abilities had not been put into question, I would not have felt the need to prove myself as a biologist. This experience motivated me to seek out the diverse research and numerous mentoring opportunities that have become such an integral part of who I am as a scientist today.
I have conducted research in two languages, two countries, and a variety of biological disciplines. I have collaborated with scientists from countries across the globe, including Spain, Ecuador, Colombia, England, Morocco, and the United States. I am just as comfortable performing a Western Blot as I am dissecting the olfactory bulbs of creek chub minnows (Semotilus atromaculatus).
I have worked, in some capacity, with many common model organisms used in the biological sciences including D. melanogaster, D. rerio, S. aureus, S. pombe, and S. cerevisiae. All of these experiences have molded me as a biologist. They have provided me with a unique assortment of skills and knowledge that allow me to look at biological questions from the perspective of many disciplines. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire I participated in a two-year research program that integrated hands-on research with courses in bioinformatics and scientific rhetoric. During the summer term, I worked as part of a cohort of students to test the fear response of S. atromaculatus to various chemical stressors under the supervision of Dr. David Lonzarich.
The following fall semester I learned how to analyze that data in the coding program ‘R’ during a bioinformatics/biostatistics course. That spring I enrolled in a scientific writing course where I wrote a mock NSF grant proposal for the research I had conducted. I also presented this research at UW-Eau Claire’s Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA). This research program was my first glimpse of the scientific process and I loved it. After my time in the program ended I was hungry for more scientific inquiry and quickly pursued a research fellowship.
The spring of my junior year in college I was accepted into the International Fellows Program offered by UW-Eau Claire. As an international fellow, I spent the subsequent summer in the Galapagos Islands working, in Spanish, with scientists from around the world at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). During my time at the CDRS, I worked simultaneously on two projects concerning the control of an invasive, parasitic fly species, Philornis downsi, and the conservation and management of the endemic bird species affected by this parasite.
As part of these projects, I was responsible for monitoring nests of the Galapagos flycatcher (M. magnirostris) as well as monitoring breeding of the Vermilion flycatcher (P. rubinus). Additionally, I was responsible for the collection and rearing of P. downsi as part of a collaboration with the Heimpel Lab at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The most rewarding part of these projects was the community outreach. I, along with other members of my team, spent time with local school children teaching them about our project, in Spanish, and conveying the importance of taking an active role in the conservation of endemic species.
After my fellowship ended, I returned to UW-Eau Claire for my final year of college. It was during this year that I finally conducted research in an area I felt revealed my strengths as a scientist. Working under Dr. Daniel Herman, I used microbiology and molecular biology to investigate the prevalence of two Staphylococcus species, S. succinus and S. equorum, in nasal swab isolates taken from hospitals and communities in Ecuador. I honed my skills at the bench while in the Herman lab, becoming skilled in a number of molecular techniques. I presented this research at the annual CERCA, as I had done in previous years, and reveled in the opportunity to discuss my research with my peers and the public. My time spent in the Herman Lab, albeit short, ignited my interest in pursuing molecular biology.
In my first year of graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, I began an 8-week rotation in Dr. Jennifer Benanti’s lab whose general focus is the regulation of the eukaryotic cell cycle. Eight weeks was quickly extended to four months and four months soon morphed into a permanent position. My initial rotation project matured into a full-blown plan for my thesis research aimed at understanding molecular crosstalk between stress-activated signaling pathways in the budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. After less than a year in the Benanti Lab, I presented my research at the 23rd annual UMass Research Retreat held at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where I discussed my project with faculty from a variety of biological backgrounds.
In addition to my extensive research experience, my goal of becoming an educator has motivated me to seek out extracurricular teaching opportunities which have confirmed my talent and passion for education. I began tutoring introductory biology and chemistry during my sophomore year of college at UW-Eau Claire and quickly realized how much joy it brought me. It was incredible to see students have that “lightbulb” moment after I explained a difficult concept in simple layman terms. The students I worked with were remarkable. They came to me struggling to keep up with the course material and by the end of the semester were at the top of their class. In the following years, I witnessed two of my students become tutors themselves and they have told me that my role in their education is what inspired them to do so. As much as I loved tutoring, many of these sessions were one-on-one and it struck me that I wasn’t helping as many students as I could, so I sought out additional mentoring opportunities through my university.
I began volunteering as a supplemental academic assistant for various biology labs offered by UW-Eau Claire. My role was to aid student learning and act as another resource in addition to the faculty running the lab. I loved answering students’ questions, but I wanted to take a more active role in the material they were learning. For this reason, I approached the faculty member in charge of the lab and asked if I could prepare the lesson plan for the following session. Without hesitation, he said yes. The following week I brought my guitar to class, sang a song about how blood pumps through the heart, and then had students sing-along with me. I knew that teaching a concept in a non-traditional way would make it more memorable and thus increase retention of the material. Sure enough, the scores on the quiz covering my material were the highest all semester. It was after this non-traditional lesson plan that I realized I had a knack for creative approaches to teaching.
In my last two years at UW-Eau Claire I took on an additional teaching role and began working as a Supplemental Instruction (SI) Leader for the same biology course I had struggled with only a few short years ago. Supplemental Instruction is a nationally recognized program that employs peer-assisted study sessions to improve retention and success in historically difficult courses. As an SI leader, I prepared tri-weekly lesson plans covering the material that faculty presented during lectures. For nearly every session, I incorporated the course material into “game show” activities, such as Jeopardy, and had students compete in teams to determine how well they understood a given topic. I found that this not only made learning the material more fun for students but adding a competitive element also seemed to increase understanding and recall of the material more quickly than traditional study methods. Now, as a member of the Benanti Lab, I will continue to seek out mentoring opportunities.
The University of Massachusetts Medical school offers a number of outreach programs including a 10-week summer undergraduate research program that emphasizes the involvement of underrepresented groups. This program gives undergraduates the chance to engage in hands-on research, under the supervision of graduate students such as myself, as well as prepare and present a professional research poster. The Benanti Lab has hosted summer undergraduates in the past and will continue to do so during my time at UMass. Working with S. cerevisiae is an added advantage to being part of the Benanti Lab. This model system is easy to grow and manipulate, making it perfect for short research programs. In addition to mentoring undergraduates, I will pursue teaching assistantships, as I become eligible, offered through UMass. Two courses in scientific communication, ‘Foundations in Biomedical Science’ and ‘Preparation for Qualifying Exam’, are offered by the university and require the support of teaching assistants. My prior teaching experience will serve me well as I pursue these opportunities. Receiving this fellowship will provide me with the financial flexibility to pursue these mentoring and career development opportunities in addition to my thesis research.
I am earning my Ph. D. so that I can pursue a career in education. I would like to teach at an undergraduate university that equally emphasizes teaching and research. The combination of my diverse research background and extensive teaching experience will enable me to inspire the next generation of scientists. Additionally, the experience gained studying S. cerevisiae in my thesis lab will allow me to smoothly transition my graduate work into my own research lab. I am the quintessential NSF fellow and have shown this through my commitment to research, education, and global engagement.
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