Enthusiastic young researchers from across the United States spent the summer of 2019 in Cornell research labs. In this part two feature on next-gen scientists, students and Cornell faculty participating in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program talk about their experiences. We highlight some of the program’s researchers mostly in Cornell department REU sites: Astronomy, Molecular Biology and Genetics (MBG), Mathematics, and Cornell Institute of Host-Microbe Interactions and Disease (CIHMID).
Rigorous Work in a Congenial Environment
Agnele S. Sewa, Brandeis University, would bring ideas to her principal investigator (PI) John C. Schimenti, Biomedical Sciences, and mentor Marquita Winters, Molecular Biology and Genetics, and they would reflect on the questions with her. “They were not only interested in me doing science for a project. They were actually guiding me through problems and helping me come up with great ideas that will stick with me outside of this project,” Sewa asserted.
Sewa, in the MBG REU program, spent her summer composing a CRISPR library for targeting genes related to breast cancer. It was a new branch of science for Sewa. She indicated that being able to see how experts in the field think about their projects helped her see where she could grow in her own research.
“The first time I talked about the changes that I found, I thought I had seen just a couple boulders and dust moving. I didn’t think it was very big, but it turned out these were subtle changes that nobody had found before. It felt nice to discover something that nobody had seen,” said Alexandro R. Ochoa, who is transferring from Chabot College to the University of California, Berkeley in Fall 2019.
Ochoa’s observation feeds into the lab’s broader work toward understanding how the comet evolved over time. He examined images of Comet 67/P Churyumov Gerasimenko in the lab of Alexander Hayes, Astronomy, PI for the Astronomy REU Program. Ochoa felt his work was an important contribution to a larger project, even though he would not be there to witness the complete conclusion of the overall project.
Joyce A. Chew, Calvin University, described the experience of working with Andy D. Borum, Mathematics, as one of collaboration. “He knew how to give constructive feedback and point me in directions that I hadn’t considered,” said Chew. “It felt like we were doing research and working together.”
A sense of accomplishment and belonging was a highlight for Vanessa J. Viveros, Los Medanos College. Coming from a community college with limited research opportunities and taking part in the Microbial Friends and Foes REU with CIHMID, Viveros expressed that she gained invaluable knowledge and confidence from her mentors.
“Every step of the way, from figuring out anything in lab to learning bioinformatics and running code on the computer, was super cool.”
While working with Corrie Moreau, Entomology, Viveros studied the driving factor for gut bacterial communities in turtle ants. By the end of the summer, Viveros discovered that the local environment was responsible for structuring the ants’ gut bacteria and that the bacteria was not co-evolving with the ant. “Every step of the way, from figuring out anything in lab to learning bioinformatics and running code on the computer, was super cool,” said Viveros.
Many of the REU programs aim to give its students the opportunity to do research from start to finish. “Getting your first data and answering your question—it’s that curiosity and interest that inspire us as scientists,” said co-PI of the Microbial Friends and Foes program Tory Hendry, Microbiology. “It’s especially rewarding to work with REU students, who are enthusiastic and want to dedicate themselves full-time for the summer. As a mentor and teacher, interacting with students and getting them excited about something, giving them a chance to get into their own project, is the fun part,” said Hendry.
The Cornell REU Program—Seeing the Bigger Goal
“At a larger school like Cornell, even if your lab doesn’t have the instrument you need, someone else in the building has it,” said Sewa. “There are resources available for any experiment you can possibly think of and there are people here to help you, too.”
Not only did students engage in their own research, they were exposed to research done by others. Each of the REU programs held talks and panels, during which faculty and graduate students presented and discussed their work. REU students appreciated Cornell’s programs for also teaching them how to communicate about their work to a larger scientific community.
Mentors like Volker M. Vogt, Tim C. Huffaker, and Jun Kelly Liu, Molecular Biology and Genetics, met with all MBG REU students weekly. “We critiqued their talks, their posters, their abstracts, everything,” said Liu. “In addition to their faculty mentors in their own labs, they really get the attention of other senior faculty.” Vogt added, “The point is to get the students in an environment where they see what the bigger goal is.” Nearly all REU students presented a poster or gave a talk about their research at the end of the summer.
“Our goal is to provide transformational experiences for students,” said Hayes. “To let students see if research is a path they want to go down and to expose more students to the field of Astronomy.”
Professors themselves cited their undergraduate research as what propelled them on the research path. Nikole K. Lewis, co-PI of Astronomy REU, participated in an Astronomy REU program as an undergraduate. “The students get to work with world-class scientists and do interesting research. There are only handful of places where you can get that experience,” she said. “We’re giving back to a program that was important to us.”
The REU programs at Cornell are playing a critical role in training the future generation of researchers and ensuring that this new generation includes a wide and diverse range of people. The program also functions as recruitment tool, since many of the students apply to, and eventually attend, Cornell for graduate school.
“A lot of the experience has revolved around preparing for grad school,” said Ochoa. “Before, I wasn’t thinking of going to grad school. The experience has been very helpful because I’m a first-generation college student. I don’t know a lot of people who have gone into higher education.” Now, Ochoa is seriously considering graduate school and hoping to do work in space exploration.
Sewa responded to the question of whether she will apply to Cornell for graduate school with an enthusiastic “of course!” She added, “What stands out to me at Cornell is that people care about your research, and they’re invested in it. But they’re also aware that you’re a person, and there’s more to you than your research and that these other aspects of your life might influence the way you think about your research in important ways.”