This summer, I had the great opportunity to work with Dr. Hsunyi Hsieh, a post-doc in the Robertson Lab, as an REU student at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. Being a biology major, I was very eager to translate the lab skills gained in my undergraduate courses into a project that I was personally interested in. My actual experience, however, greatly differed from what I had initially expected, and for that, I am most thankful.
It was actually a few minutes into my interview, sitting cross from Drs. Carolina Córdova and Hsunyi Hsieh over Skype, that I first heard the words ‘spatial data analysis,’ a phrase that immediately warranted further explanation. Essentially the investigation into patterns caused by geographic factors such as size, shape and distance, Dr. Hsieh talked briefly about her work, mentioning the technology she uses and a few associated theories, all of which were extremely interesting, but admittedly went right over my head.
By the time the interview was wrapping up, I felt as though I had totally botched my one chance to make an impression. “There is no way that I will be selected to work with either of these researchers,” I thought to myself as I ended the Skype call. “I have absolutely no experience with either of their their fields of research, and there are certainly students that are more qualified than me.” Fortunately, Dr. Hsieh saw some sort of potential and selected me to work with her for the summer, an investment into my future that I will not soon forget.
Planting the seeds of a project
Upon arriving to Michigan a couple of months later, I still had very little knowledge about the concepts and technology related to spatial analysis, and even less of an idea about what I would like to study during my stay at KBS. Sitting down with my mentor, we ended up settling on a project that explored the effects that the spatial arrangement of flowers had on their pollination frequency. Not only did we think that this experiment would be manageable given the program’s limited time, but more importantly, it was on a topic that I found to be interesting and extremely relevant in the world.
For the project, we worked in collaboration with Lindsey Kemmerling and Ally Brown from the Haddad Lab, who deployed Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan) pots in the KBS Long-term Ecological Research program’s main cropping system experiment, or MCSE, left them out for two weeks, and then measured the amount of seeds that they produced. During this time, Dr. Hsieh and I used drone images taken by Kevin Kahmark and GPS coordinates from the field to make a precise map of where our flowers and natural flowers were located in each plot. Using the seed set data and our created map, we analyzed patterns that related seed set, a measurement of pollination services, to the size and proximity of flower clusters that surrounded our deployed plants.
Being back in Ohio now that the summer has ended, I can truthfully say that this was a one-of-a-kind experience full of personal growth that has already had a major impact on my career path. The first way in which I was able to grow was by gaining a lot of biological knowledge. For me, it was wonderful to put many of the ecological concepts I had studied into practice and apply them to my own study. Never having been a very tech-friendly person, it was also great to gain a little exposure to programs such as Python, RStudio and QGIS.
Personal and professional growth
Not only did I gain a lot of new scientific information, but as a student in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, I was able to learn a lot about what it means to be a professional researcher and about the next steps I need to take to follow in the footsteps of my mentor and the other KBS faculty members. Being able to focus solely on my research project and being expected to work about 40 hours a week, this program successfully simulated what it would be like to work as an academic in the field of biology. We were expected to submit a project proposal, create a budget, attend weekly lab meetings, and finally produce a poster about our research—all things that I found to be realistic tasks for anybody working in academia. Through the various professional development seminars hosted by KBS, we also learned about the often-overlooked aspects of research such as building strong relationships with our mentors, the complexities of authorship, effectively communicating our findings, and how to increase our cultural intelligence in the workplace.
I also grew a lot as a result of the wonderful people that I spent my time with while at KBS. Looking to work in an environment that was very diverse, that is exactly what I found in the Robertson Lab, with the faculty members coming from all corners of the globe, from Ecuador to India. With my fellow REU participants coming from all areas of the country as well, I was able to learn a lot about the experiences of my peers and hopefully helped them grow as humans through the ideas that I shared with them. Feeling very strongly about diversity in academics, I was able to help establish the Society for People of Color in Academia, or SPOCA, an affinity group at KBS that allowed many of us to share about our unique backgrounds in a safe space and discuss the dire need for increased equity in scientific communities. Along with the many REU students that I befriended from outside the Midwest, I formed close relationships with the MSU students who were studying and researching at KBS as well, many of whom I hope to visit again very soon.
Lastly, I formed a wonderful relationship with my mentor, Dr. Hsieh, whom I cannot speak more highly of. The nurturing work environment that she created during my time at KBS helped to negate the effects of imposter syndrome that I felt when I first arrived, and she helped me prove to myself that the goal of one day working in academia is a very realistic possibility. In Dr. Hsieh I have found a mentor who I know will always support me in my future endeavors, wherever they may be, and I am excited to continue to work closely with her as we extend our project past this summer.
Brandon D’Souza is a junior at the Ohio State University, studying biology and Spanish. His KBS mentors were Drs. Hsunyi Hsieh and Phil Robertson. His KBS summer experience was made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Biology Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.