My Experience as an Undergraduate Research Assistant in the Plante Lab

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!


Research in the time of COVID

Research in the time of COVID


A Semi-Personal Reflection of Life in the Lab during COVID

It has been one year since the first deaths in the United States from the coronavirus disease 2019, also known as COVID. The full effect of the outbreak didn’t hit our department until one month later, in March of 2020. For many us of researchers, the changes were sudden but uncertain. As a first year PhD student I had just started learning my way around the lab. It felt like a large step back to find myself stuck at home in a studio apartment (only slightly larger than the lab) with just my dog and my laptop. Fortunately, my advisor was empathetic and helped me prioritize my mental health in those first few weeks, so we could later successfully develop a new timeline for my dissertation.

Those first few weeks in quarantine were like stabilizing a rocking boat. My pre-COVID days used to include rushing to feed and walk my dog before morning meetings, rushing to classes, recitations, office hours, and various extracurricular meetings and campus events and talks. I would meet my coworkers for coffee in the conference room or offices semi-casually and pick up bits of advice here and a bit of reassurance there. Then I would rush home to walk my dog before heading out to grab drinks at networking events or watch a Philadelphia game at one of the many stadiums. My days were unremarkable in the sense that everyone was just as busy as I was.

I remember the first time that I stood in a library classroom preparing to teach my first recitation in January of 2020. I had fallen in love with teaching while directing a garden club in Senegal, but I wasn’t as confident teaching in English as I had been in Pular. I didn’t have the language-barrier excuse to fall back on since English is my native language. But teaching was everything I remembered it to be: fun, engaging, challenging, and exhausting. I was shaking and sweating after the first day, but just as much from excitement as from nerves. I vaguely remember telling students to stay safe over spring break, and I looked forward to seeing them in a few weeks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet with them again. Everything moved online to asynchronous recordings after the university sent everyone, including me, home.

My first post-COVID days were unremarkable in the sense that everyone was just as unproductive as I was. In between teaching my dog new tricks and organizing my Tupperware cabinet, I read some papers and responded to some emails. My coworkers and I drank wine and put on face masks over zoom. We met (virtually) every week for coffee, which helped immensely even if we just stared at each other and made awkward small talk.

Eventually, cleaning my apartment and doing yoga multiple times a day to distract myself from the unfolding economic collapse stopped working, so I jumped on the opportunity to sign up for re-entry into lab spaces in June. This brought up a wave of grief that many of us have had to process simultaneously. I am fortunate to have only lost three months of lab time, and not my source of income or health insurance, but the impact of the lost time is undeniable. My summer plans included traveling to a soil institute for a two-week professional development program and mentoring a female undergraduate in our lab. It is tempting to reflect upon those changed plans with anemoia or bitterness, but the more peaceful perspective is to imagine each life that was saved when these plans changed. Airline attendants, hotel sanitation staff, elder soil scientists, the list is infinite. A shift in my dissertation timeline is a small price to pay for the lives of fellow Americans.

This perspective shift closed the book on the first chapter of lab work during COVID and brought in a second chapter. With the guidance of my advisor (and his tireless dedication to realist-optimism), I began re-imagining the path I would take for my doctorate. I began developing a professional skill most people find through personal crisis – significantly adjusting your methods to achieve your goals. I could see how easy it would be to fall into a “professional depression”, especially as I was navigating a personal depression. Often, projects at the doctoral level are the culmination of years of a science community clarifying a vision and a researcher building their career to explore that vision. Throwing a huge, global pandemic sized wrench into that process could be debilitating if not destructive.

But one of the things COVID has taught us is that our professional trajectory can be just as vulnerable as our personal journey. I spent the entire summer running a time-intensive procedure. Every week, alone in the big lab, I bleached around 16 soil samples, eventually building a set of around 300 bleached soil samples. When the fall semester began, I was able to focus on less time-intensive procedures such as surface area analyses of the bleached samples and carbon/nitrogen analyses while I navigating the new structure of zoom classes. I became grateful for the time I spent solely reading and organizing papers in March and April as my qualifying exam approached.

Now, in the early spring semester of 2021, there is a new world. I get excited to log into my zoom recitation so I can try out new ways to engage with students and get them to connect with the material. My excitement and motivations for teaching are the same, but my methods are different. Next week, a new female undergraduate will be joining our research team and I feel confident we can collaborate under COVID-safe protocols. My dissertation proposal may be a bit more preliminary data and literature review heavy instead of grand paragraphs about what methods I learned and potential collaborators I met at Colorado, Rutgers, or Berkley, but my hypotheses and research questions will still be scientifically valid and meaningful (inshallah). Every dissertation journey in the Plante lab may be different but the flexibility, innovation, and support in the lab allows each one to be successful.

PhD fellowship opportunities available

The Terrestrial Biogeochemistry Laboratory in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science of the University of Pennsylvania invites applicants for competitive Ph.D. fellowships in one of two research areas: Soil carbon biogeochemistry: Projects seek to quantify and characterize the recalcitrant pools of pyrogenic and geogenic carbon in soils. We’ll examine chemical transformations and dissolution as mechanisms controlling their fate in the critical zone. Urban biogeochemistry: New and evolving research projects to study the biogeochemical functioning of urban ecosystems with emphasis on cycling and storage of carbon and nutrients. Positions are ideal for candidates who have completed an MSc in soil science, geosciences, environmental chemistry, ecosystem science or related fields, but outstanding BSc graduates in such programs will be considered. For further information, please contact Dr. Alain Plante by email ( or consult the department website ( Applications can be submitted directly online ( before December 15.

Madison and the SSA

Madison and the SSA

In our our ongoing video series, “What are you doing today?“, undergraduate research assistant Madison Bell-Rosof explains why measure the specific surface area of soil samples.


Hannah picking biochar

Hannah picking biochar

In our our ongoing video series, “What are you doing today?“, undergraduate research assistant Hannah Sanders explains why she’s using dental tools to pick biochar chunks clean of soil.


Hi Penn!

Hi Penn!

Hi all!lab-selfie

I am extremely excited to be the latest addition to Prof. Plante’s lab (and thrilled about the new Netzsch autosampler); we have been planning this collaboration since first meeting at AGU (American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting) in 2013. At that time, I was a Ph.D. candidate Tulane University with Prof. Brad Rosenheim. My research focused on using thermal analyses and coupled radiocarbon and isotopic analyses to characterize organic matter stability in coastal soils and sedimentary deposits. After completing my Ph.D. the following year, I began a postdoctoral research position at the University of California – Merced with Prof. Marilyn Fogel. My research grew to focus on using hydrogen and carbon isotopes to trace inputs and subsequent storage of organic matter in forest soils, characterize dynamics of physical and chemical stabilization, as well as address the potential of soil organic matter in recording climate (precipitation) signals. Now, finally, as a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania through a fellowship from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, I am excited to continue researching mechanisms controlling organic matter stability and storage in soils, specifically, mineral interactions, effects of biochar/black carbon addition, and microbial impacts as well as improving our understanding of thermal analyses as they relate to particulate organic matter cycling.

~Liz Williams