Research experience matters!

I applied for the University Honors Summer Scholars program in order to strengthen my application for graduate school.  Having completed my capstone project, it is easy to see how the program helped me accomplish this.  The Honors Department gave me the resources to pursue my own research idea from start to finish, which is an invaluable experience for an applicant to have.  As testimony to the usefulness of my Summer Scholarship, I was recently admitted to the doctoral program in Psychological & Brain Sciences at my top choice of schools, the University of California, Santa Barbara.

P1000979 During my interviews for graduate school, the advice I received from my advisors was confirmed:  independent research experience is the most important factor when applying for research-based PhD programs such as psychology or neuroscience.  Because of the large time commitment required for such an undertaking, the Summer Scholars program provided generous stipends to ensure that my fellow Scholars and I could devote our full attention to our respective projects.  This allowed me to spend my summer brainstorming with my advisors, creating my experimental protocol, and beginning to write a manuscript.

Data collection continued into the Spring semester, when I ran the final analyses and defended my results before a committee of faculty members.  I recently returned from the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science, an international conference in San Francisco, where I presented some of the data from my project.  This was a great opportunity to practice presenting my own work to other researchers in the field.  And it was a perfect excuse for a road trip.

I count my Summer Scholarship among the most valuable and memorable parts of my NIU experience – along with the chance to work with my wonderful advisors, Dr. Angela Grippo and Dr. David Bridgett; the incredibly eye-opening Foundations of Psychedelic Studies course I took with Dr. Thomas Roberts; the marvelous friends I’ve made over the years; and, of course, the lagoon.  The program is an incredible resource for self-motivated students looking to make the most of their undergraduate career and gain a competitive edge when applying for graduate school.  Please keep the funding coming!

Thanks to UHSS, I’ve had the opportunity to experience firsthand some of the challenges involved in conducting an original research project.  I feel well-prepared to move out to sunny California and take the next steps along my educational path.  Thanks for your interest!

Reflections

With my summer experience finally coming to an end, I can only reflect on my research as being every bit as fulfilling as I had hoped for. Having had the ability to experiment in the straw-tube laboratory at NIU, attend meetings at Fermilab and interact with the local Kane county community has definitely been an opportunity of a lifetime. Through the benefit of the Summer Scholars program I have been able to fully dedicate my summer to academia and achieve my goals of gaining valuable research experience all the while positioning myself to deliver a worthy Honors Capstone.

P1000969Of course, none of this would have been possible had the Honors Committee not placed their faith in me to succeed as a Summer Scholar in the first place, and to this well placed trust I once again offer my gratitude. Furthermore, I would also like to thank my faculty adviser Dr. Eads for his guidance throughout the project, Jason Goode for his assistance in running the Summer Scholars program, NIU students  Mary Shenk and Aaron Epps for their collaboration with the g-2 project, Fermilab and the NIU Physics Department for providing me with the resources to conduct my research, NIU Shop Services for fulfilling all of my custom parts requests, and finally, but of equal importance, my family for their ever present support throughout my academic endeavors.

Although there is slight feeling of sorrow at seeing my journey come to end, I know that the Summer Scholars program is only the beginning of many great things to come; my opportunity to present my research at a national conference as well as a recent request to continue my research over the summer working with the Italian Muon g-2 team serving as two excellent examples. These opportunities and many others will allow me to continue my intellectual pursuits and I am confident that my involvement at Northern Illinois University, as well as my contributions to the field of high energy particle physics, is far from over.

Honors Summer Scholars: Final Blog Post

Being a University Honors Summer Scholar was the highlight of my research work at NIU. It meant that my research background from Research Rookies had prepared me to take on a bigger more in-depth research project for my University Honors CapstP1000988one. I learned that it takes a very high achieving student to win such an opportunity and award, and I was proud to be one of those three students.

During the summer I spent 20 hours a week, every week, working on my research.  Reading, writing a literature review, completing IRB, emailing, finding participants, meetings, figuring out variables, analyzing the Pre Elementary Education Longitudinal Study Data, conducting interviews, etc. The summer was intense with research. When it came to the fall, things definitely calmed down on the research end. My classes and extra curriculars were rough and I couldn’t dedicate as much time as I wanted to towards my research. However, spring semester turned everything right back around, and my focus was once again research. I presented at 3 research events (NCUR, URAD, and the Honors Scholars Reception), and besides being busy preparing for those, I also was writing my Honors Capstone.

The spring semester was definitely my favorite semester research wise. I was able to do what I wanted to do with my research—share it with others! My first presentation was at NCUR, The National Conference for Undergraduate Research. NIU’s University Honors Program and Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning funded 15 other students and myself to go down to this conference in Louisville, Kentucky to present out research. The opportunity was amazing, eye opening, and rare. I got to see what other undergraduate students were researching, how their research levels compared to what students at NIU were researching, and how my NIU peers performed their presentations. I have to say, NIU is on top of its game as far as undergraduate research is concerned. I was so blown away and impressed with my peers. On the second day of the conference is when I presented my oral presentation for my research. I was excited that I took a challenge and decided to present orally instead of doing a poster, which I had already had experience doing. Thankfully, my presentation when smoothly! My audience had lots of good questions, and they seemed very receptive and engaged.

Although my final capstone project was not originally what I had planned it to be, I was happy with the work I had done. I completed 11 healthcare provider interviews, and I wish I could have done more and on a broader scale. I also did a data analysis with the Pre Elementary Education Longitudinal Study (PEELS) data, but the analysis was not a logistic regression which I had originally planned to do. My statistical program refused to cooperate with me, and my results were so skewed and unusable, I had to find another way to utilize the PEELS data. So, instead of interpreting the odds ratio result from the logistic regression, I simply looked at the tables and trends of my independent and dependent variables. It was a simplified method to my quantitative work, but I think it still had significance.

From these experiences, my presentations and my failures, I have learned a lot. I have learned how to cater to different audiences that I am presenting to, how to teach my research to others not just regurgitate it. I have also learned how to structure qualitative research questions better, how to analyze qualitative work, and how to overcome obstacles or unexpected circumstances throughout the research process.

I am proud to say that I will be attending Colorado State University in the fall of 2014. There, I will be pursuing my Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. I am also delighted to mention that I have gotten a research assistantship at the Occupational Therapy Department’s Child Participation in Environment Research Laboratory. This assistantship would not have been granted to me if it were not for my opportunities and award through the University Honors Summer Scholars Program. I can’t thank the University Honors Program enough for all they have done for me, through this program and others. They have made me more prepared for my future, have made me a more competitive student, have given me rare and unique opportunities to learn and grow…for that I thank them wholeheartedly.

            The final results of research in any field are usually presented in the form of a cut-and-dry, matter-of-fact manuscript published in a scientific journal.  This gives an air of finality which belies the fact that the research process takes place largely in a gray area of following hunches, reevaluating assumptions, and not being certain what the data will show.  My experience as a University Honors Summer Scholar opened my eyes to the challenges involved in conducting research.

            The brain is complicated.  At the beginning of the summer, I thought that I had a pretty good understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in stress regulation.  But after powering through my reading list of 45 articles, I realized that I had barely scratched the surface.  Conducting research requires substantial background knowledge of a diverse web of phenomena and how they relate to one another.  As I enhanced my knowledge base, I found it necessary to research many more topics in order to thoroughly understand my project.

            Another major challenge was the enormous amount of time required to collect the self-report, , and physiological data from each participant.  Data collection alone consumed five to eight person-hours per participant – that is, when a main experimenter, a camera operator, and a participant could all make it to the lab at once.  Many more person-hours were spent waiting for participants to arrive, which taught me another important lesson:  always bring a book.Neuropsychology

            Working on this project also taught me that it is harder than it looks to get a group of about 30 people – mostly undergraduate students – to stay organized and on-task.  Dr. Bridgett’s laboratory analyzes a very large amount of data from each participant, and individual research assistants are responsible for each step in the process of collecting, organizing, and interpreting that data.  This means that everyone involved must be on the same page, whether that page is using the same code to enter questionnaire data into the computer or inputting all leftover data by a certain deadline.  Confusion about these expectations typically meant that my weekend would involve a lot of entering, correcting, or tracking down data.

            These challenges would have been far more stressful without the help of my faculty mentors, Dr. David Bridgett and Dr. Angela Grippo.  Their experience with similar hindrances allowed them to guide me as smoothly as possible through the research process.  I have also been able to share with them the experience of finding significant results.  For instance, it was exciting to discover with Dr. Bridgett that the laboratory’s new physiological equipment was working properly and that our measurement of cumulative stress was producing the expected results.  Although my main hypotheses have not yet been confirmed, I have found some interesting results that I hope to present at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science this summer.

 

Overcoming Challenges

By far the most challenging portion of my research centered on the troubleshooting of the straw tube tension test. Before delving into the difficulties in running this portion of the experiment, along with the techniques that I eventually used to overcome these hardships, it is best that I share some of the physics background regarding what exactly I was trying to accomplish.PastedGraphic-5

Technical details aside, the primary purpose of this portion of my research was to design a non-contact setup that would register the tension in one of the straw tubes used in the muon g-2 drift chamber. Considering that the tension could not be measured by a simple force meter once the straws were glued into a place, a process was devised in which a straw was made to vibrate inside of a magnetic field with a loudspeaker and the resulting generated EMF signal digitized by an oscilloscope, thus providing the necessary information to measure the tension.

While the aforementioned process seemed pretty simple on paper, things began to break down during the phase of data collection (i.e. I wasn’t getting a noticeable signal). This issue was fairly serious considering that without any worthwhile data, I would effectively have nothing to show for my entire summer of research.  Increasing the gravity of the issue, the lack of signal from my electrical circuit made diagnosing the problem even more troublesome (dead circuit aside, the possible causes for error were many).  Finally, making the task seemingly impossible, the lack of a lab manual or previous research to cross-check my setup made things all the more difficult.

Now, considering that this is a blog entry and not a short novel on my many failed attempts to getting my experiment to work, I will skip over the trial and error portion of this story and state that I eventually got the signal and data that I was looking for. None of this, however, would have been possible without the trouble shooting lessons that I picked up along the way.

First, and foremost, speaking to my peers and seeking help from my adviser were instrumental in diagnosing the problem. Although I used to think that working alone was something to be lauded, I quickly learned that in the laboratory setting it is very ineffective.  Receiving a different outlook on a problem can be very rewarding even if it doesn’t yield an answer right away as it helps to mitigate the tunnel vision effect that can occur when working alone.PastedGraphic-3

The next troubleshooting practice was more of a lesson in hindsight, but nevertheless a good practice when performing an experiment. When going through the possible causes of your problem it is always helpful to have duplicate parts to check for component malfunctions. As it turned out, the one part of my setup that I did not have a duplicate of (a signal amplifier) had burned an internal battery and was not working properly. Had I acted with a bit more diligence and built my own amplifier (I had the spare parts to do so), as opposed to relying on the fact that the amplifier was working before, the defect in my setup would have been diagnosed much quicker.

Finally, this ordeal further convinced me to the importance of taking proper lab notes. Maintaining a good record of one’s procedure is not only a good organizational tool to conducting an experiment, but also an excellent method of giving insight to other contributing members of the project.

My Connection to the Muon g-2 Experiment

photoAs a student pursuing a degree in physics, the decision to involve myself in the Muon g-2 Experiment was driven by several key factors. Among these components that connected me to my research, the aspiration of attending graduate school was definitely a motivating factor. Given that a certain level of research experience is required to even be considered as a suitable candidate for an RA position, it was almost an obligation, rather than a choice, that I would seek to obtain some form of undergraduate research. In this sense, the invaluable opportunity provided to me by the Summer Scholars in the g-2 Experiment was a chance I could simply not pass up on as it would serve as an excellent introduction to the world of particle physics and allow me to increase my odds of becoming a future research candidate.g-2A (2)

Another reason why the g-2 project caught my eye was because of its connection to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Having lived in Kane County for the majority of my life, I had always been drawn to the allure of Fermilab due to its reputation as one of the leading particle physics research facilities in United States. Having gone on tours of the Tevatron (particle accelerator) and attended Saturday Morning Physics seminars as a high school student, I had long held the fantasy of one day walking through the revolving doors of Wilson Hall not as a visitor, but as a collaborating physicist. Thus, by committing myself to the Muon g-2 Experiment I understood that I would be one step closer to someday achieving this goal.

Finally, and perhaps the fundamental connection to why I chose to work on the g-2 project, was my desire to finally test my physics knowledge that I had gained in the classroom and apply it to real world situations. Although my laboratory classes at NIU had given me a glimpse of what research might be like, I had always wondered as to how things would change when dealing with experiments that were at the leading edge of scientific discovery. The Muon g-2 Experiment will grant me the unique opportunity to test this knowledge and gain even more insight from highly qualified scientists and professors. I can only hope to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity as I am positive that it will shape the outcome of my future career.

Challenges of my research

ChallengeThe main challenges I have faced while doing my research is from the qualitative component of my research. This qualitative aspect includes 12 interviews from professionals who work with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I have interviewed three professionals from each of the following four fields: occupational therapy (OT), speech therapy (SLP), behavioral therapy (BT), and special education. The main challenge I faced with these interviews, was finding professionals to do them—especially in special education and behavioral therapy. With special education, it was difficult because I mainly had to reach out to school districts in the northern Illinois region, and they were not very responsive or helpful. Another issue I faced with finding special education professionals is that they have such a wide range of children with disabilities that they work with; it was difficult to find ones proficient enough in the area of children with ASD to interview. Another challenge I faced was finding behavioral therapists, mainly because I have no connections or network in that field and they just were not as easy to locate as OT’s and SLP’s. I also had the same problem I had with special educators—I found that behavioral therapists work with such a wide range of children with emotional and developmental disabilities that it was hard to find professionals experienced or well versed in working with children with ASD. However, when I did find three professionals who were BT’s and three who were special educators, I got a lot of good feedback and information through the interviews! My mentor also helped me a lot along the way—making the connections for me or reaching out to professionals she knew who knew other professionals.

To enhance my project, I did observe some of the professionals I interviewed. Although these observations are not a part of my research study—they were valuable experiences that helped me to better understand the different techniques used in different fields and how the individual therapies or services could benefit children with ASD in a multidimensional way.