Hello! I’m Michelle, a new undergraduate research assistant in the Plante Lab. I started working with PhD candidate, Maura Slocum, this spring semester. So far, working on soil carbon biogeochemistry with her and Dr. Plante has been such an exciting and fulfilling experience. I look forward to continuing research in the Plante lab this summer!
I got started with the Plante lab because of the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring program (PURM). In the spring of my sophomore year, I applied to Dr. Plante’s PURM project to research decomposition in soil. Shortly after submitting my application and scheduling an interview with Dr. Plante, Penn sent everyone home because of COVID-19. I had my meeting with Dr. Plante, but his project with PURM was eventually canceled for the summer since it could not be done remotely. Since PURM is only for freshmen and sophomores, I couldn’t reapply next year. Over winter break of my junior year, I reached out to Dr. Plante asking about potential spring research opportunities that he might have. Luckily, he was able to bring me on as an undergraduate research assistant through work-study to work with Maura.
Being able to do research as an undergraduate is a really exciting opportunity for me. I’ve always been interested in research, but I didn’t know much about the specifics of research. Going into college, I knew that I wanted to pursue an Earth science major with a concentration in environmental science. I have always been interested in the environment but since it’s such a broad field, I had no idea what specific area I would want to focus on. This is why I was intrigued by research. I would be able to explore one topic in-depth and gain valuable experience. From those experiences, I would be able to see if I was interested in the topic or not. I hadn’t even considered working in soil science until I took ENVS 100, Introduction to Environmental Science, with Dr. Plante. Hearing Dr. Plante speak about his passion, studying soil, was memorable since it emphasized how vast environmental science is, and it got me excited about research. I find environmental science exciting because it’s a quickly growing field, and it relates to all aspects of life. By studying environmental science, I feel like there are many career paths I could pursue.
This spring semester, I went into the lab at Hayden Hall 3 days a week for about 2 hours each day. I am currently helping Maura with specific surface area analyses of soil samples. The samples consist of African Dark Earths (AfDE) and adjacent soils (AS). These AfDE samples from West Africa are extremely fertile and carbon-rich due to indigenous soil management. The goal is to analyze these samples to see how and why AfDE are so much more fertile and contain more organic carbon than AS. I help prepare soil samples for specific surface area analysis to see how soil organic matter affects the surface area of AfDE compared to AS. This process consists of massing out bleached and unbleached soil samples into test tubes, putting them on the VacPrep to prepare for specific surface area analysis on the TriStar. My other tasks include cleaning out test tubes, transferring density separation soil samples from tins to test tubes, and weighing out samples to be bleached. These more mundane tasks may seem tedious and boring, but I genuinely enjoy them and find them strangely satisfying and comforting. I also value the importance of these tasks. They seem very small and insignificant, but they are important steps in getting us closer to our goal. In addition to in-person lab work, I do research remotely due to restrictions with COVID-19. I have been teaching myself how to code in R. I’ve been using R and Microsoft Excel to generate figures from our data. I think it’s exciting to see the raw data turn into graphs and charts that display the data in a way that is easy to digest.
Despite the COVID safety restrictions, I find my experience with lab research very rewarding. With the safety precautions in place like masks and face shields, low building occupancy restrictions, regular biweekly testing, I feel safe coming into the lab. It’s also really nice having somewhere to go regularly. After over a year of online courses from home, it’s been extremely refreshing to go outside and interact with other people regularly. I find the research very interesting and fulfilling. I feel like I’m doing important work which greatly differs from my previous experiences working in a lab for biology or chemistry lab courses. Instead of carrying out weekly experiments for a grade, I’m continuously contributing to one project with one overall goal. The research that I am doing has an impact on real-world applications which is really exciting. Working with Maura has also been a great learning experience. Not only do I gain technician lab skills and learn about how research works, but I also get a glimpse into the life of a PhD student. As a first-generation college student, I am not knowledgeable in the higher education system. So, it has been helpful to see the work that goes into getting a PhD outside of attending classes. I find this really insightful since I’m considering going to graduate school sometime in the future.
Although I’ve only just started undergraduate research, I have some advice to share with underclassmen from my own experience. The most important thing that I want to emphasize is that it’s never too late to start undergraduate research. I ended up starting undergraduate research in my spring semester of junior year. I’ve always felt pressured to start research earlier after seeing my peers get involved early on. Penn culture is very preprofessional, and there’s a constant pressure to always be productive like your peers. But, you shouldn’t let that pressure make you feel bad about not doing research or accomplishing other lofty goals. You should pursue undergraduate research and other opportunities for yourself because you want to, not because you feel like you need to keep up with your peers’ accomplishments. You should do research because the topic excites you. It’s okay not to start research immediately in freshman year. Doing undergraduate research at all is impressive and valuable regardless of when you start. It’s about what you gain from the experience.
Another fear that I had with starting undergraduate research is not being knowledgeable enough about the topic to help with research. I was initially a little skeptical about what I could contribute to the research since I only had a general understanding of soil science and no previous lab experience. Through my research, I found that that is okay. You’re not expected to be an expert on the topic. A big part of the research involves learning. You’ll learn more and more about the topic through reading papers and lab work. It’s also encouraged to ask questions, and you won’t be shamed for not knowing something. The important things are being interested in the topic and having the drive to learn.
Regardless of what your path to undergraduate research looks like, it’s important to be proactive. Plans don’t always turn out the way you want them to, but you must keep trying. I didn’t get to participate in PURM, but I still got to work in the Plante lab after reaching out again to ask about potential research for the spring semester. It never hurts to reach out to professors about research opportunities, so don’t be afraid to cold email them. Undergraduate research is a challenging yet very rewarding experience!