Let’s Talk About Research

What is up, my dudes? Its the end of week 4 here on campus, and things are rolling. There was no slow build this semester; it hit like a truck. A lot of the reason my workload is huge this semester is because, on top of classes, I am studying for the GRE and writing the first draft of my research paper. As you can tell from the title, this blog is going to be about research. Specifically, how I got into it to where I am now. Hopefully, you’ll start to understand that the road to research is not as straight as one may imagine it to be.

Step 1: Research Workshop

Picture this, you’re me. It’s your second semester at Illinois and everyone is telling you that you need to be doing research and blah blah blah. You’re panicking. You have no idea how to get involved in research, you don’t know what research is, and you have no clue if it’s even something you want to do. You check your student email and find out there is a “How to get started in research” workshop at the union next week. What are you going to do? Go, of course!

Okay, so we’re at this workshop and a researcher, who you later find out does big deal research on campus, is presenting. They offer you advice on how to reach out to labs who you might be interested in. You get sample emails to send potential labs. You leave feeling a bit relieved. You’re still not sure about what you want to do, but it leaves you motivated.

Step 2: IB 299 – Introduction to Research

Flash forward to April and you’re registering for classes for the following year. You get yet another email (BIG HINT: READ THE EMAILS!) about a class that’s an intro to research and pairs you up with a lab on campus. You register ASAP!

Side Note

Before I continue, I want to clear the air about any and every rumor you may have heard about getting involved with research. When I was a freshman, everyone told me that labs only wanted upperclassmen because they had the experience through their classes. I want y’all to know that although yes, some labs do prefer upperclassmen, other labs prefer sophomores and freshman! Believe it or not, some researchers will put in the time to train you so that you can work with them until your senior year. You’re not required to, but it allows for you to really get integrated into a lab and grow.

Alright so you’re in IB299, in this class, the sole purpose is to give you an opportunity to get involved in research and understand the process behind it. A ton of researchers from Illinois come into the class and present on their research. The big bonus of this class is that you get to choose whose lab you want to join. When I was taking the class, one particular researcher really caught my attention. A graduate student presented on their work on pollen and brought in 3D models of pollen. I thought the 3D models were cool, and I really identified with Ingrid. She was also a Latina woman in biology, and if we’re being honest, you rarely see that in science. I was so excited to see that I was represented in my own school. I signed up to work with her in the Punyasenya Lab.

Ingrid’s thesis was focused on comparing the current climate with that of the Pliocene Era. She was using pollen to compare the carbon isotopes. While in Columbia, she collected rocks with preserved vegetation. Other lab assistants and I would break the rocks and very carefully search for old (thousands of years old) leaves or wood within the rocks. In addition, she had us filter rocks to find the perfect size of specimen. Overall, most of the lab work involved listening to podcasts and playing with some cool rocks. I loved my experience working for Ingrid. She has been a phenomenal mentor and taught me so much more about research and application processes than anyone else. While writing this, I am reminded that I should email her soon. I really value the mentorship that she provided me.

I was an assistant for Ingrid for 2 semesters, and through that experience, I was able to branch out and start doing my own research.

Step 3: Diving Into Your Own Interest

Although I loved working with Ingrid, I realized that lab research was not for me. I enjoyed laughing and listening to podcast with my lab mates, but I wasn’t in love with the actual work I was doing. This is okay. It was really hard for me to leave the lab, but it helped me realize that it was something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to give up on research though; I was still looking for other opportunities.

In my sophomore year, I took a class named Honduras Water Project. The class was a mix of undergrad and grad students with the goal to design a water system for a rural community of Honduras. Within the class, I was able to travel to Honduras and learn about the existing flaws within international engineering. The class was two semesters, which meant I really got to know my classmates and professors (they all became like best friends). I was assigned to design the hand washing station for the school within the community.

This was the school in Honduras for which I was designing a hand washing station for. I loved the kids and they were for sure the hardest part about leaving.

By the time the class ended, I was not done with the design, and I worked on it over the summer. Throughout the summer, I met with the professor for the class, Dr. Ann Witmer. I continuously expressed interest in the work she was doing. She asked me to attend her research group meeting so I could get a sense of whether that was something I actually wanted to do. Keep in mind, at this point, I had just decided that I was not going to apply to med school, so I was looking for options. I went to their meetings and fell in love with the work. Dr. Witmer continuously encouraged me to begin my own research project, and so I did!

Contextual Engineering

To give you all a background of what research group focuses on, I want to give you an example from my own travels with Dr. Witmer. This is a story told to us by a woman in the rural mountains of Guatemala. We were sitting in her home asking about what she envisioned for the water system we were designing. I asked if any other international organizations had come to her community. She told of a politician, from where she could not recall, that came to their community and told them they had a trash issue. He started a project with the community to manage their trash.

The politician told families that if they built a large compost bin (as big as an average car), he would exchange the bin for new aluminum roofing for their homes. This is a very low income community where most people do not have electricity, and homes are small and built of homemade adobe bricks. The woman told us that every family jumped on the project. Some families pulled their children out of school and did not take any other jobs that came to devote their time to building a compost bin. After many families were done and went to receive compensation for their work, the politician told them he had run out of money and left their community, leaving them with a compost bin that they didn’t want, know how to use, or care for. All the compost bins currently sit at the bottom of a valley, untouched or cared for. The families still need new roofs.

This was taken in Guatemala. I was the travel mentor for International Water Project, the same as Honduras Water Project except in Guatemala. The women on the left were our cooks (they taught me how to make tortillas) and the men on the right were our guards.

This story broke my heart when I heard it, but it is a reality of many low-income rural communities around the world. International organizations market the completion of extremely successful projects that changed the lives of many poor people. Unfortunately, success is currently being defined by the international organizations as opposed to the people, families, and communities that these projects are truly meant to serve. This is what Contextual Engineering is all about. It aims to build the bridge between sociology and engineering to create place-based designs and critical thinking. My research is specifically focused on finding the voice and opinions of these rural communities and illustrating the value that they have in projects.

Research group has grown so much since the 3 semesters I have been a part of it. Everyone is working on their own project that encompasses some branch of Contextual Engineering. Currently, I am writing the outline to my literature review that I hope to publish by the end of second semester. I cannot express how much this has changed the trajectory of my life. I have been able to travel to Honduras, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone within the past two years with Dr. Witmer to experience and hear these stories firsthand. I have made countless friends internationally and within research group. I came to college knowing I wanted to help people, and I figured out how I was going to do it.

The roads to get to the rural communities and within big cities in Sierra Leone
After a long day of interviews, I finally was able to eat some dinner back at the hotel. Bo, Sierra Leone

Make it your own

I cannot encourage you all to try some sort of research at least once at your time here at Illinois, or wherever life takes you. You may find a passion for it that you didn’t know existed before. Or you may realize that it’s not for you. Whatever you learn, you want to give yourself the experience. Don’t let the myths you have heard around campus or other students discourage you from just checking it out.

That is all for this one, friends. Feel free to comment and let me know if you have any further questions about research or my work. I hope to hear from some of you soon.

Happy fall,

JN

Julissa

Julissa

Class of 2020
I am majoring in Integrative Biology within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I am from Lemont, a small southwest suburb of Chicago. If you want to read about the daily life of a student on campus and get some tips and tricks in the trade, my post are for you!

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