Monday, December 14, 2015

From homeschooled farm kid to chemistry grad student

It has been just about seven years since my last blog post. I had actually mostly forgotten about this blog until I was recently looking at nature photos I took as a young teenager. Seeing a photo of a duck entitled "blog banner" made me want to look at this blog again.

Seeing all of the photos were now grey boxes with question marks, I signed in to see about getting the old photos back. That's when I saw the statistics box on the home page that I expected to be flat-lined, but was pleasantly surprised to see there had been 22 page views the previous day, 88 the previous month, and almost 7000 total since the blog was created. Obviously these aren't the most impressive of numbers, but this made me think. Anybody who reads this blog, be it yesterday or 8 years ago, have no idea what happened to the dorky farm kid who liked taking pictures and writing about science.

The short story: I am now in my second year of graduate school in the chemistry department at Colorado State University. How I went from a 14-year-old who thought she was going to be a zoologist to working in a chemistry lab? That's a longer story.

I first started this blog when my mom suggested I share with the world how much I enjoy learning about science and how I used the farm to do it. It also gave me the opportunity to share my wildlife photography, something else I was extremely passionate about. I had a blast with the blog and was getting positive feedback from any friends who read it and received some very nice comments from annonymous readers on the interwebs. I stopped writing when I was 15 and started attending the local community college. My dad worked there and I wanted to start learning science in a classroom. Starting off with Spanish, English, and a plant biology course, I discovered that I had quite a diverse range of interests. When I took general biology, I liked every aspect of it, from photosynthesis and biochemistry to bacteria and ecology. Unlike most of my peers, I really enjoyed dissecting animals and my biology professor complimented my steady hands. I told her it wasn't my first time (referring to my blog post, Canis latran strikes again) and she mentioned that I would probably make a good pathologist. At that point, I decided I was going to do the pre-med route, go to medical school, and become a clinical or forensic pathologist. As with any biology route, I had to take general and organic chemistry. All of my peers had warned me about having to "suffer" through chemistry courses in order to get into medical school, but I actually really enjoyed chemistry. I remember the moment I realized how cool chemistry was in the first lab I attended. I came to the realization that Sharpie markers were "permanent" because it was hydrophobic, i.e. "doesn't mix with water." Therefore, to get rid of Sharpie, you use a high percentage alcohol solution. How cool was that??

I had to move on from the community college though, so I transferred to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to complete my B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology. It was a rough transition. Everyone I was meeting in the MCB program were pre-med as well, but they had a very different take of science than I did. Most of them didn't like science to the degree that I did, and many of them just wanted to go to medical school for the high salary. Going to an informational seminar about undergrad research also made me think about how cool being a researcher sounded. I talked to an academic adviser about doing an MD/PhD program.
"Now why on earth would you want to suffer through that?" he asked.
"Well I want to do pathological research."
"Ooooor you could drop the MD and just get a PhD. You can do research on whatever you want and it'll take less time."
Well that sounded pretty brilliant to me. Because I liked chemistry so much, I was thinking about doing a PhD in biochemistry. While doing my research on PhD programs, I also discovered that you could get a PhD in chemistry with a specialty in Chemical Biology. I wasn't doing very well in the molecular biology class I was currently taking and feared getting a "C," so I decided to drop that course. At the beginning of spring semester, I changed my major to chemistry. I got an undergraduate research position in a bioanalytical chemistry lab headed by principal investigator Jonathan Sweedler. I loved the research I was doing with deciphering neuropeptide function using the California Sea Hare through behavioral and electrophysiology experiments.

I started to get tired of school and was contemplating getting a job with a bachelor’s degree. However, over the summer when I presented a research poster at an undergraduate research symposium, I talked to Jonathan. During the conversation he asked about grad school and when I told him I was questioning going, he told me that he thought I would thrive in a graduate school environment. Getting a compliment like that from a nationally known analytical chemist really gave me the boost I needed to get through my senior year and apply to a few graduate schools.

In January, I heard from Colorado State University about getting accepted into their PhD program, which had to be one of the happiest moments of my life. I went on to write a senior thesis and graduated with high distinction from the department and was also one of four undergraduates to receive an award at graduation, thanks to Jonathan's nomination.

I'd be lying if I said graduate school isn't hard sometimes, but I am still thoroughly enjoying it. I have joined another great bioanlaytical lab with another wonderful adviser, Chuck Henry. My research revolves around designing and fabricating inexpensive and portable diagnostics for infectious diseases.

I successfully completed my first year and am done with classes and cumulative examinations. At the end of this next February, I will be taking my preliminary oral examination. For those of you who don't know much about the PhD process, this is pretty much the doom of all grad students where you present on the research you've done and are going to do. The terrible part is when your graduate committee starts questioning you for 1-2 1/2 hours on your research and the chemistry behind it.
A female sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)
photographed on a hike in Roosevelt National Forest.

It's still weird to think that seven years ago I thought I was going to be a zoologist and now I work in a chemistry lab. However, I am still doing research and am planning to get a PhD, even if it's a different field. I could theoretically still get a job that involves zoology. My current goal is to get a job at the Fort Collins branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where they study vector-borne diseases, such as West Nile Virus and Lyme disease.

I am definitely still that dorky little teenager I was back then. Whenever I go on hikes with friends, I bring a camera and will often go all nerdy when I see an animal I know. "That's a cormorant!" I yelled excitedly one day when we went swimming in the local reservoir. "We have those in Illinois! You see how it's sunning itself? That's because their feathers aren't waterproof so that it's easier to stay underwater."

It's no question that it's because of the farm that made me who I am today. Before we moved out to the country, my mom says I was the girliest girl I could be who refused to wear nothing but dresses. Had we not moved to the farm, I likely would not have gotten into science, nonetheless start a science blog. Obviously not everyone who lives on a farm is going to become a scientist. My brother, who had the exact same childhood, is currently in his senior year of a theater program. 

STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a growing field that will always need people. Therefore it is important we get kids into science at a young age and the easiest way to do this is get outside. You don't need a farm to do this with the county, state, and national parks that are open to the public. Children are naturally curious creatures, so when they ask questions, answer them! Even if you don't know the answer, Google them when you get home. While taking an English class in college, I wrote a research paper on getting kids outside. During my research, I found a research paper from Europe that showed a correlation with students’ outdoor experiences and their success with science in the classroom. 

If not just for a student's interest in science, it's important to get kids outside for the sake of appreciating nature. After all, they are the coming generation, and if the next generation doesn't appreciate nature, what will happen to the world around us?