He's back. While I work to meet a few deadlines, Ben is filling in again and providing some more perspective on his experience as an undergraduate. Hopefully this is just a start, and he'll be providing more details in future posts as he navigates many "firsts" in his career as a fisheries biologist. Notably absent from his description is any mention of full his calendar became after he started working in the lab, and how much sass he receives from me daily. I'm giving him the true fisheries experience.
Getting involved in research as an undergrad can certainly feel like a daunting task. When you first arrive at college, no matter what school or major, it is undoubtedly going to be a lot different than anything you have ever experienced before. In the midst of trying to make friends, adjusting to college classes, and trying your best to get involved, thinking about your future is something that often gets thrown on the backburner. Nonetheless, when the time comes to take on a new challenge, it can be difficult to know where to start. Luckily, I am here to share my struggles and triumphs in finding an undergrad research position so all of you can live vicariously through me.
When I first decided that I wanted to get involved in undergrad research, the first person I went to was my academic advisor. At a regular advising meeting one day we were just discussing my courses for the upcoming semester and I brought up the possibility of starting to get some volunteer hours in a biology lab. Her recommendation to me was to go online to faculty webpages and start looking for professors doing research that might interest me. I took her advice and began searching for what I hoped would be my future home. While this was pretty interesting at the beginning, freshman me had no clue about half the research I was reading about. And with riveting topics such as “atypical heterotrimeric G protein Y sub-unit and guard cell K channel regulation in morphological development” and ”chronic unpredictable stress causes long-term anxiety”, I think I was starting to develop some long-term anxiety of my own. Not to mention the nightmare that is trying to meet with faculty that have schedules that are equally or more busy than your own class schedule.
There is nothing more awkward than walking into the office of a professor you have never met before and trying to simultaneously impress them while also trying to pretend like you know more about a research topic than you actually do. After my fair share of uncomfortable meetings with professors that were studying nothing close to what I was interested in, I decided to talk to an instructor that was teaching a class that I was taking in my major about research opportunities. Meeting with her was a great way to become exposed to researchers that were doing work that was more relevant to what we were studying in class. While I was disappointed that she was not able to offer me a research position in a lab of her own, I left her office a bit more interested in continuing my search. I sent out another round of emails to some of the people that she suggested to me and eventually heard back from two of them. This time when I met with the each of the professors I did my best to be straightforward about what my skills were and what I was hoping to get out of my experience.
Within the next few weeks I had heard back from both of them with two very different offers. The first of which was the potential for a full-time position, 40 hours a week, for the entire summer sampling in local state parks. The second offer was to work part time in the summer on a brook trout project. I think by now it is obvious which choice I made, but there were a few other considerations that I had to make when choosing a position. I knew that there was no way that I would be able to afford to spend the summer at school without another part time job. I did what I thought at the time was “biting the bullet” and declined what seemed like it would be a really amazing opportunity and opted for the part time position so that I could work part time at the university advising center in order to save a little bit of money. I could not have been happier about my choice.
Finding an opportunity to work in research as an undergrad forced me to make a lot of difficult decisions and really reflect more seriously about what I wanted to do in the future. It is extremely difficult to make choices for reasons based on things other than simply academics, but as is the nature of life that we often have to choose between what we think is best for us and what is actually feasible. In this case, everything ended up working out quite well for me. After I took some time to get oriented to the undergrad research life, I was able to find a fair amount of success with the help of my mentor and other lab-mates. Through undergrad research I got to experience my first taste of field research. It was really engaging to see that skills that are so often talked about in the classroom coalesce into a real-world application used by scientists every day. As you heard in my last post, my research experiences have been invaluable when it comes to networking and developing effective science communication skills. I am also so grateful for all of the opportunities that have been made available to individuals like me through funding offered by a number of locations on campus that support undergraduates in research. It is thanks to these generous contributions that I am able to continue to perform research and better define my interests as I learn more and more about the world of fisheries science. I hope that one day in the future I can reflect again on my undergraduate research experience and how it has shaped me into the person that I am, but for now I will just sit back and hope for the best.
Ben Kline, undergrad extraordinaire, graciously offered to pick up my slack and do a few blog posts over the next few weeks. Ben has been working in the lab for almost a year now, and taken leadership on a project looking at individual variation to heat stress. Results of the project are still pending, but we’re introducing him to a whole new side of science- professional conferences. In this post, Ben talks about his first impressions of an American Fisheries Society (AFS) meeting, which he presented at in February. He did so well that he's packing his bags for the National AFS meeting in August in Atlantic City.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to give my first oral presentation at a professional conference on fisheries science. It wasn’t my first ever presentation, as last fall I attended the Susquehanna River Symposium at Bucknell University. If you follow The Troutlook on Twitter, then there is a good chance you saw my first crack at a research poster that I attempted to pull together for the conference (or perhaps you were able to pick out the glaring typo instead). The event was quite memorable, and I was pleased with how everything turned out. The poster presentation was a great way to get my feet wet in the fisheries scene, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking with other people that were interested in the same realm of science as me.
Making the poster and hearing feedback was something that also helped me to reflect on my current and potential future research experiences. As people began to talk to me about my project and ask questions, it became evident that, although I had already spent months working on my project, I still had significant knowledge gaps about all of the moving parts behind our experiment. This experience was somewhat disappointing, as I felt that I had not learned very much in my time working on the project, but also simultaneously quite motivating in a sense that there was a bit of urgency for me to get back to the lab and keep working on the project.
I left the symposium with some thoughtful critique and some questions in need of answering. Upon returning to the lab after some time for the winter holiday, another opportunity presented itself to me. A few weeks prior I had submitted my first abstract to give an oral presentation at a local conference. When I logged into my email I had discovered that my abstract was accepted and I would get a chance to speak at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. Upon sharing the news with Shannon, we immediately got to work. I had never before given a professional talk about my research and I knew that there would be a lot for me to learn. I prepped my talk and meticulously edited my PowerPoint until I was pleased. When it finally came time to give my practice talk to our lab I knew that there would be plenty of comments, but I was eager to learn and improve in any way that I could. To my surprise, my talk was received warmly by the other members of the lab. With the meeting coming up in just a few short days, I continued to refine my work until the story came out exactly how I wanted it to.
The morning of the conference was a big groggy. Getting up at 4:30am and then taking a 2 hour drive in subfreezing temperatures is not the most glamorous way to start the day, but I was excited nonetheless. We arrived at the conference center and got things set up. I had the chance to chat with a few of my classmates from Penn State that were in attendance while we waited for the show to begin. There were about 100 people in attendance, a healthy mix of managers and academics with few students- and even fewer undergrads. I was a bit nervous to give my talk, and being the first person to go wasn’t very inspirational. But a curt nod from Shannon was enough to motivate me towards the podium and the rest was downhill from there. The talk went quite well, and only one person was asleep, so I would consider it a success. With a major weight lifted from my shoulders I had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the rest of the conference for what it truly was. I had plenty of opportunities to listen to other talks about research that is going on in the fisheries world. As a future graduate student, it was really helpful to hear what kind of projects other people are working on so that I could better define my interests. I was also pleased to have the chance to meet a number of other scientists and managers and hear about their experiences firsthand.
Through it all I was certainly able to learn a number of valuable lessons. From my first attempt at a research poster to my second attempt with the oral presentation, I was able to identify that I maybe didn’t fully understand my project to the best of my ability, and that was okay for the time being. Having a hard time putting your work into words was a great way of identifying what parts of my research I should spend some time becoming more familiar with. After all, it is one thing to try to understand something yourself. However, being able to not only explain, but also really convey the essence of your research to someone else is something that is truly difficult to do, which brings me to my second lesson. Being a good presenter is about being a good story-teller. The more clear and vivid of a picture you paint for your audience, the better your talk will be as a whole. I spent countless hours thinking about the story that I was trying to tell with my presentation and as a result, the final product was much different than the original. It isn’t about having perfect transitions or the most articulate vocabulary in every instance, but instead about finding common ground that is relevant and meaningful to your audience and using that as a way to leverage the most important parts of your research into what you are trying to say.