SAGE Musings: 2YC Research Students' Experiences, in Their Own Words

Stephanie Schroeder and students from the 2017 Community College Cultivation Cohort
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published Oct 12, 2017 8:37am

The Community College Cultivation Cohort (C4) is a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU), sponsored by the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI), an NSF Science and Technology Center located at the University of Southern California. C4 recruits community college students nationwide, focusing on students who are interested in pursuing a STEM career. Students participate in a 9-week research experience where they work in teams to identify and characterize a novel seafloor or subseafloor microbe. In addition to learning about research culture by being immersed in it, students attend weekly professional development sessions focused on succeeding at a 4-year institution and beyond. We asked this year's cohort to tell us about their experiences. Here are a selection of their answers.

2017 C4 Participants

  • Charbel Bou Khalil (Orange Coast College)
  • Alex Cervantes (Cerritos College, Rio Hondo College)
  • Raquel Diaz (Brookdale Community College)
  • Angelica Escobar (Santiago Canyon College)
  • Karen Ho (Pasadena City College)
  • Stephen Hoefler (Mission College, West Valley College)
  • Christopher Neely (Rio Hondo College)
  • Hillary Smith (Waubonsee Community College)

BRIEFLY – in 3 sentences or less – what was your summer research project about?

Christopher Neely: My summer research project involved learning about the optimal conditions under which a newly discovered, iron-oxidizing bacterial species can live. I also used bioinformatics/data analysis techniques to learn about how the species uses different substances for energy.

Charbel Bou Khalil: My summer research project focused on characterizing a novel marine microorganism designated SC-1, one of a few known iron-oxidizers. Besides determining SC-1's optimal growth conditions, we designed our own experiments to investigate various metabolic pathways in SC-1 as well as in an enrichment culture containing various unknown microbes.

What led you to seek out a research opportunity?

Hillary Smith: After working with a citizen science non-profit as an AmeriCorps volunteer, I went back to community college knowing I wanted to build a career in research. Having hands-on research experience is helpful in determining which type of research I'd enjoy pursuing in the future and to prepare me for graduate-level work. It is also a fun experience, which allows me to gain technical laboratory skills, go in depth on a topic, and meet new people.

Stephen Hoefler: As a non-traditional, first generation, and older community college student: I felt a great deal of pressure "measuring up" to my peers at 4-year institutions. Simply put, there is more money and more opportunities available to 4 year students than for community college students. While our education at community college is usually superb, we don't usually have well endowed lab programs to work in and even if we have lab time, we rarely have the opportunity to do research. Applying to C-DEBI was my response to my perceived need to seek opportunities and gain research experience. I also selected the C4 internship because it specifically addressed the needs of community college students, which is largely lacking from other REU programs.

Raquel Diaz: I wanted to explore my options in research so I figured starting now would be my best option. Also, I wanted to do have a job that would incorporate things I learned in a lecture setting at community college.

Were you prepared for the work you did in your summer research experience? That is, did you have the skills you needed for the work you did? If so, how had you learned those skills? If not, what preparation did you feel you were missing?

Karen Ho: I think I was prepared for the work in terms of the physical lab skills that were needed. I have worked in an environmental microbiology lab in the past and was able to translate and improve many of my technical skills. The one thing that I was not really prepared for was the bioinformatics component of this program. I did not really know what to expect, but it turned out to be an incredible learning experience and I really enjoyed it.

Raquel Diaz: I was definitely not prepared to work in a lab setting. There were so many simple mechanical/practical basic lab skills (e.g., using a syringe) that I had to learn throughout the first couple of weeks. I just learned by showing up to work each morning with enthusiasm and an open mind.

What do you wish you had known about participating in research, before you started?

Alex Cervantes: I wish I had known that not everything is going to work out as expected and that is okay.

Hillary Smith: I wish I had realized sooner that networking is one of the most important parts of this experience. It is amazing to meet so many people with different areas of interest and expertise. Also, it is important to remember that mistakes are part of the research process.

Christopher Neely: I was wholly unaware about the things I did not know. Being in this program has helped me to gain a better understanding about what it is like to live the life of a researcher, and has helped me prepare for graduate school and beyond.

How has your research experience affected you? For example, has it made you more or less interested in a career in science? Has it made you feel more or less confident in your ability to do science? Has it affected you in other ways?

Angelica Escobar: It has DEFINITELY made me more interested in a career in science. I already wanted a career in science but I didn't know what my options were. By doing research I was exposed to faculty/advisors and graduate students who all have something unique about their academic path and they gave me the opportunity to ask them questions. It has made me more comfortable and confident in my ability to succeed and to find something I love doing.

Karen Ho: I have enhanced my skills in lab and gained a deeper understanding for research. I've learned so much about graduate school and appreciated the different perspectives that I got about this topic. I am grateful for this opportunity because it helped me become even more interested and excited for a career in science. Through this program, I was able to gain more confidence in my abilities and know that I could have what it takes to have a successful career. I also further developed my skills to network and talk to other people.

What is one of the biggest challenges you faced in your summer research experience? How did you overcome that challenge?

Alex Cervantes: The biggest challenge was trying to learn so many things at once. It was difficult, confusing, and frustrating, but my group was there to help me out.

Raquel Diaz: Overcoming the idea that I didn't belong here. I was very intimidated by the other undergraduates in the program. After hearing about the research/classes they had already done/taken I began to reason that I was highly unqualified to be here. Honestly, I was able to overcome this by just getting to know everyone individually outside of the lab. Talking about life and seeing everyone's different struggles and sharing my own created a solidarity that I had back home at my own community college. Friendships made outside of lab really helped me thrive while doing research.

Charbel Bou Khalil: Imposter syndrome. During the first two weeks, I felt like I wasn't smart enough and that my opinions were not valid, so I didn't participate in decision making in lab when certain issues came up. I also self-criticized myself more than I should have probably when I messed up certain things in lab towards the start. The main reason I was able to snap out of it and started participating meaningfully in lab is thanks to Karla, my mentor. As a mentor, she was positive and supportive every day of our internship, and she helped me regain the confidence I needed. No matter what goes wrong, she would always find a way to fix it, or she would simply help me start over without making me feel out of place.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your summer research experience?

Stephen Hoefler: I think that the C-DEBI C4 REU program should be commended for addressing a great and hidden inequity in academia. Community college students represent an oft-missed opportunity for research institutions. There's any number of reasons a student may opt into going to community college instead of a 4-year institution and there's no good reason community college students should be denied opportunities. Wherever possible, I hope that community college faculty can leverage their professional networks to develop internship, research, and lab visitation opportunities for STEM students at community colleges with nearby 4-year research institutions. To the staff and faculty of 4-year institutions reading this, please consider making an investment in your local community college and be open to developing these relationships. We are more than worth the time and effort!

Hillary Smith: I recommend that everyone try research. Taking science classes with a laboratory component is not the same as being involved in a long-term research project. It wasn't until I got involved with research that I knew science was the career for me. Even if it ends up being something you don't enjoy, you are one step closer to finding out what is right for you.

Angelica Escobar: This was an amazing experience overall. I'm grateful to have an opportunity to be a part of something that will further benefit community college students in their academic path.

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