Posted by Priya Agrawal, Chirag Gokani, Christian Kondor, Yilong Peng, and Nikitha Vicas
One of the benefits that the McDermott Scholars program offers to incoming freshmen is the opportunity to spend the summer before their freshman year at UTD to do research in a lab of their choice. Scholars live in the dorms, eat at the dining hall, and get experience working in professional research environments.
Or Starbucks, but really, that’s just Christian.
With one thing after another, coming to campus early is completely nuts. After weeks of graduation parties and excitement, suddenly being miles from home — in some cases literally further from home than from outer space — can be daunting. But after settling in for a day or two, the song of the summer starts playing quick and strong, and you find that maybe — just maybe — you already know how to dance.
The PFO experience can take many different forms, depending on what field of research you go into, or even which lab you’re working in. Even within the same field, experiences can be completely different. That being said, here’s a little about what we all did this summer:
Chirag: I was lucky to work with Dr. Michael Kesden, Assistant Professor of Physics, on one of the hottest topics in astrophysics: the source of gravitational waves. Just as oscillating charged particles emit electromagnetic waves, oscillating black holes emit gravitational waves. I used Python to model how multiple black holes in tight orbits spiral into each other while losing energy in the form of gravitational waves. I look forward to continue working with Dr. Kesden in the fall, when we will factor in complexities that will bring my computer models closer to what astronomers find in nature.
Yilong: My PFO experience took place in the lab of Dr. Eric Kildebeck ’01, McDermott Fellow and Research Professor at UTD, where I learned and worked in gene editing. The lab was composed of entirely undergraduates–shoutout to Mark De Los Santos ‘16–and that’s what made it so exciting! My research experience transformed from one of dependence to independence, built upon the collective mentorship of my fellow students. Together, we braved the onslaught of procedures, lessons, and vocabulary – so much vocabulary. If I were to write a book about the experience, it’d be titled The Art of Waiting, and half of the book would be the appendices.
Choosing to do PFO was one of the better decisions of my life. It eased the mystery surrounding college: dorm life, dining hall food (something better left a mystery), and confirmed that the field and lab I chose were the right ones for me. I cannot recommend the experience enough! And you get to move in a week before everyone else, which is always handy.
Priya: My PFO experience was a little bit different, but largely consisted of research in Dr. Walter Voit’s ’01 Advanced Polymer Research Lab. I worked under the guidance of Kevin Ong ‘16 on his project of creating effective brain probes using SMP (Shape Memory Polymers). Having come into the lab with very limited prior knowledge of electrical engineering–I am a Biology and Political Science major–I found myself on a steep learning curve. As I ran numerous different tests and surveys, I found myself understanding and appreciating the field more and more. I would have never imagined myself conducting this research a year ago, but now I can say I have some engineering background!
Christian: I spent my summer in a math mentorship with Dr. Mieczysław Dabkowski; or more simply, I met with Dr. Dabkowski twice a week in the Starbucks on Custer and Renner, and we did math.
My summer felt like the first class one takes in a foreign language. I spent the two months of PFO learning math that I’d never even dreamed of, but more importantly, I learned why math works the way it does. Dr. Dabkowski opened a whole world of intrigue up to me that I’m more than ready to spend the rest of my life exploring.
Nikitha: My PFO experience was in Dr. Michael Kilgard’s neuroplasticity lab, with projects assessing the effect of Vagus Nerve Stimulation and behavioral training on auditory cortex plasticity. It was a process full of rapid learning curves and adjustments. Walking in my first day, I had no experience working with animals in the lab setting. Ten minutes later they were habituating: crawling all over my lap and trying to squirm into my lab coat. An hour later I had already learned how to insert swivels in their head caps and plug/unplug them into their booths. A few weeks later I was helping with rat breeding and drug injections. Each week led to more interesting things, and I soon learned that the more you reach out and ask questions, the more you can do and learn.
Yilong: Make sure to set the dial in the fridge to 7 (turns out 0 does not mean “0 degrees Celsius”).
Priya: Bring a sweater; though it may be 103 degrees outside, you may find yourself turning into a popsicle when inside a building.
Christian: Get to know some of the older scholars! A few of them are almost always on campus, and trust us–they want to get to know you, too. It’s also a good idea to take the summer to explore the Richardson area.
Nikitha: Don’t be afraid to ask questions and for help in the lab (especially when a rat escaped and is running around somewhere underneath the maze of booths and cages).
Chirag: Establish a schedule as soon as possible. My motivation, productivity, and fulfillment hit a sweet spot once I got into a routine.