Interview with Mines’ Undergraduate First Fellows

By Erika Stromerson    /    July 16th, 2019

Gabriela Blanchard (GB): Chemical Engineering, Center for Hydrate Research

Emily Phaneuf (EP): Environmental Engineering, ReNUWIt Laboratory

Tony Tien (TT): Chemical Engineering, Biofilms

Logan Cummings (LC): Mechanical Engineering, Single Molecule Biophysics

Mines is known for the unique hands-on experiences it gives its students, and these experiences shine in undergraduate research. Undergraduate research seems daunting to students new to it, and seems like an experience reserved fr those who are set to become professional researchers in their own time. But this isn’t often the case; undergraduate research at Mines is an experience offered to everyone, including first-year students. Mines’ new FIRST program was begun to give first-year students the opportunity to start researching their first year at Mines. We sat down with four FIRST students, who are now continuing their research this summer, to talk about their experiences.

What got you interested in research?

GB: I think I knew nothing about it, so I was like, might as well try it and see how you like it.

TT: Yeah, I think I was in the same boat. I had the opportunity to do research for an internship in high school, and at that point I was like, I don’t really know anything about it. So through that experience I realized I wanted to keep doing research.

LC: I did research my junior and senior years in high school. I was running my own projects, so I just knew I was into it and wanted to continue.

EP: Kind of in [Gabriela’s] boat, I didn’t have any research experience at all, and they sent out an email and I was like, cool, a thing to be involved in! So I decided to apply and see what happens.

GB: I feel like it’s easier to try it now, and if you’re like oh no I really hate it you can back out before you’re committed –

TT: Right.

GB: – Down the road, you know? So it’s like a good baby intro into grad school or research or just learn something new right now. Might as well.

As first year students coming into research, what was that like? It’s unique to do research your first year at Mines.

GB: I thought it was scary. I was the youngest one, the next youngest was a senior here, and so I was like, I don’t know anything! I sat in those first meetings and thought, these are big words! But I guess it was kinda nice, though, ‘cause you just gonna come in. And if anything, you’re around it, so you start to pick up on stuff. It was nice to have an intro ‘cause now, going into next year, I feel like I’m way more prepared. I’m continuing with my research group and now I feel like I can start off pretty strong next semester. It was just a little scary starting, and it felt good to have that baby introduction then, so when you want to get into deeper stuff it’ll be easier. You’ll know the people. It’s a good way to just start, and everyone helps so it isn’t too bad. But it was a little intimidating, I think.

[Laughter]

TT: Yeah, I also thought, like, it was pretty intimidating at first. And I thought, like, with the FIRST program it seemed like a really good opportunity for first-year students. The general Mines undergraduate research program seemed really competitive and broad, and seemed like something more juniors and seniors would go for. I also had the same thing as Gabi, where I got kind of thrown in and had to get up to pace pretty quickly, but we got through it.

[Laughter]

LC: I think it can be a little bit much at first, but I was working with a small group, and it’s not that hard to pick up. So it’s not so much of an obstacle I think it’s more like you psych yourself out.

[S]ince I was working with a small group, it was a lot easier to ask questions and feel comfortable going about it all without feeling overwhelmed …

– Emily Phaneouf, Environmental Engineering, Class of 2023

EP: Yeah, I think that’s more how I was like, too. I was in a really small group, I was just working with one senior and a Ph.D student. They kinda had to show me everything ‘cause I knew nothing. There’s a bit learning curve, ‘cause they’ve taken all this environmental stuff and know a lot of what’s going on and I didn’t know anything at all. But, since I was working with a small group, it was a lot easier to ask questions and feel comfortable going about it all that without feeling overwhelmed, I guess.

[Murmurs of agreement]

How have the people you’ve worked with, especially your mentors, helped shape your experience in research?

GB: I think my mentor almost became, like, my mom in research, you know? She took me under her wing — it’s Dr. Koh. We’d be in a meeting, and somebody would be going over a slide, and she’d be like, stop. Gabriela doesn’t know what you’re talking about. ‘Cause they’d be in the middle of these things they’d been working on for years, and I came in and I had no idea about the projects they were presenting on. So she made them stop and kinda give a brief summary at the beginning. Whether I fully understood it or not, that’s the question, but at least it was brought back to a level where she made sure I understood stuff. We would have 15 minutes after each of the weekly meetings to just talk with me and be like, okay, where you at, what should we try to do, what do I need to do to help you, that kind of thing. It was all really helpful. She was keeping track of me the entire time, and that was really nice.

LC: Yeah, in the class, we did a lesson on mentorship styles. Like, what kind of student you were, you guys remember that?

[Agreement]

LC: So you discuss that when you’re meeting with mentors, that’s part of the process. So as long as you know what you’re looking for and your mentor is aware of that, I think that you’ll have a good experience with the way that your mentorship plays into your research role. For me it’s pretty hands-off, I meet with my mentor once a week and I run everything outside of that. But that’s fine with me, and I just contact him if I have questions. I think everyone’s had pretty good experience with their mentorship. so, generally they’re supportive when you need it.

Give me a quick summary of your current responsibilities in each of your labs.

GB: I mainly support the grad students in whatever projects they have. We have one project with Oceanit right now and they supply us with pipeline coupons, and we test different coatings. So I’ve done a lot with water contact angles, whether it wets the surface. ‘Cause we’re trying to prevent hydrates — the ice crystals forming in a pipeline. It has to do with is the water sticking to the pipe, ‘cause if it is then hydrates are likely to form. So I started basic by looking at the water droplets and I learned the OCA machine which gets the water contact angle measurements for that surface. Now, since I’ve been doing pretty good with that, we’re looking more into dynamic contact angles —on a slanted piece of pipe, how that relates. So we’re looking at different coatings, ‘cause ideally we can produce a better coating that will help pipes. So with this I just do whatever they need me to do in terms of support for the grad students.

EP: Kinda what I do, I do a lot of pretty standard environmental sampling stuff for water, ‘cause we’re working on treating water with an anaerobic bioreactor. So we need to see how that’s doing and if we’re hitting EPA standards and things like that. So I test for biological oxygen demand down in Coolbaugh and I’ll do chemical oxygen demand and ammonia, total alkalinity. It’s a lot of chemical tests that I’m mostly responsible for. And I do a lot of fun cleaning—

[Laughter]

EP: Which is very fun— and then I get to do a lot of data entry and stuff, too. But it’s pretty much a lot of chemistry and seeing where we’re at.

TT: Yeah, so the project I’m working on involves biofilms and we had three seniors just graduate in May, so we have a lot of project reorganization and stuff. So I’m pretty much gonna be the sole person on the project for now.

[Nervous laughter]

TT: But I’m working with a Ph.D student so it’s all good! So the project involves pseudomonas aeruginosa which is a bacteria that colonizes the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis. And so, what happens is that basically when you try to attack the bacteria with antibiotics it kind of creates this goop that’s really hard to destroy. It’s to the point where you would have to use lethal amounts of antibiotics to kill it and it might not even destroy it. So we’re trying to reconstruct the goop, basically. And we’re trying to figure out how we can implement the nanosensors our lab fabricates, which can measure things like oxygen and pH, into the layer-by-layer assembly to better help diagnose the structure of the biofilms and how we can destroy them.

LC: So I’m working with genetic mutation. There’s a machine called a sonicator which converts sound waves into energy, and we’ve been using that to mutate some bacteria. That was kind of like the first phase of the project, to see if mutations are occurring, and now we know they’re occurring. So now we’re trying to basically extract the genomic DNA of a specific gene that’s demonstrating the mutations, it’s called the lacZ gene. There’s this protein that it creates called beta-galactosidase and it just turns the cell blue. So they’re mutating and they’re not turning blue anymore, so I’m just optimizing PCR and looking at agarose gels of the PCR results, just trying to get the genomic DNA extracted as well as we can.

[M]y favorite moment was joining the lab, because there were two other first-year students. It felt a lot more welcoming [because] everyone was new …

– Tony Tien, Chemical Engineering, Class of 2023

What are your favorite moments from your research experiences so far?

GB: I made this Excel spreadsheet, and I brought it to my mentor. It wasn’t much, but she was like, none of my Ph.D students do these Excel sheets! And she was super impressed and super proud of me for doing that. But that was one of the basic tasks they gave us in the class, produce your stuff, present it in that kind of format and send it to your mentor so they know what you’re doing. It was just kind of a progress check that I gave to her. She was so impressed, and I thought it was so funny ‘cause I guess when you’re going through so much data you’re not as concerned with making it look a little better. Sometimes I made it look prettier, I guess?

[Laughter]

GB: I had colors and everything. I thought that was hilarious.

[Laughter]

TT: I think my favorite moment was joining the lab, because there were also two other first-year students. It felt a lot more welcoming ‘cause everyone was new and didn’t know what we were doing. So we were all working on a project together this semester so it as really nice to work with other people, too.

LC: I think making the poster for the symposium [don’t know which] was really satisfying for me. I was really involved in creating the poster, and just sitting there trying to really precisely move things in Excel or in Powerpoint. It’s where I made all the graphic components. My mentor really liked those, and he’s gonna use some of them in papers.

TT: Cool!

EP: I think that was pretty cool about mine, too, ‘cause I had all this data and I could finally all see it and actually see if we were hitting everything and actually see a whole year’s worth of work.

LC: Yeah, that kind of stuff is really fun.

Speaking of symposiums, what experiences have you had with those while working on your projects?

TT: It was my first time presenting any kind of poster for research or anything, and I thought it was a really good experience. I was working with one other first-year student on the project, and we just kind of went for it with the poster. We were like this is what we’re doing! I think what’s really important is trying to articulate the project and really try to help people understand it. Being able to put that on the poster and, you know, present it and be able to develop those skills for the future, it was really cool.

LC: I’d done a couple symposiums in high school, but that was with parents and just general industry professionals. But with this symposium, it was pretty tough because the people who came and spoke to me had Ph.Ds and were doing exactly what I was working on and I’d never met them before. So you really gotta be on your toes and know what you’re saying. That was just a good experience, I felt, ‘cause I’d never needed to be quite as dialed on what exactly was important in the project. I needed to work on how to get it as concise as possible.

Overall, [FIRST] was a really positive experience, really fun.

– Emily Phaneouf, Environmental Engineering, Class of 2023

EP: Yeah, kinda the same here. I was working with a senior so she knew a lot and was doing a lot of the talking, but then I could learn a lot more through that and through her experiences. But there were also people in in my group who were like you can do the talking and I was like oh no! So I got to talk and practice a little bit of that too, which was kind of scary but cool. Overall, I think it was a really positive experience, really fun. And it was cool to go around and see what everyone else had done too, and see what other students were working on.

GB: I think it makes you feel good to put something together and be like yeah, this is what I did, I accomplished something versus just doing your work. That goes kinda under the radar, ‘cause a lot fo people don’t really know what research is being done at Mines. You just feel rewarded at the end, I think, to have put something together and be like I figured out all these things. Whether you know every detail about it or not, you have something that other people don’t know about.

Tell me about the FIRST program.

TT: We initially got an email in the fall to fill out an application for the program. I don’t remember the questions very well but it just kind of asked about your research experience and what you’re trying to get out of it, things like that. So then we got put into a “research experience” class for the fall semester where we could learn better research skills, better communication skills, things like that. We had the opportunity to start in the fall, but a lot of us started in the spring to do actual research. That was just after the class. We would do research and present at the symposium at the end of the year. Then I think at some point in April or May we were contacted to see if any of us were interested in continuing our research for the summer so right now it’s just a continuation of the FIRST program.

GB: Right.

What did you learn through the FIRST program that has been really helpful? What do you think you’ll take from this program that can help you in the future?

GB: I guess it was what to look for in a mentor.

[Agreement]

LC: Yeah, I think that was the most I got from it as well, kinda the minutiae of a student-mentor relationship in a professional research environment.

It’s important you actually enjoy what you’re doing and understand what you need to [understand].

– Gabriela Blanchard, Chemical Engineering, Class of 2023

GB: ‘Cause you had to think about hands-on, do you want the mentor to be with you, how much guidance do you want. It’s important that you actually enjoy what you’re doing and understand what you need to, and so we did a lot of writing and thinking about what we actually want. And when we went to interview with different mentors we were set up with, we had to figure out is this something I want or like. It’s both about the professor you’ll be paired with and the material you’ll be researching, too.

TT: I thought a lot of the communication, presentation, writing skills that we learned in the class were pretty universal, but like everyone else said, finding the right professor for you is a very personal thing. See if you vibe with a certain person better than with another person. I think that, definitely, is really important.

What advice do you have for other first-year students interested in research?

EP: I would say, I guess, just do it and see if you like it. My roommate did this same thing, she decided she didn’t like it and that’s okay. But you don’t really have anything to lose by not liking it—

[Agreement]

EP: —Go and see if you like it, talk to a lot of different people. I talked to a bunch of different potential mentors to see, you know, kind of scope out what was available to me and what I thought was the most interesting research to me, the different groups I’d be working with. There’s a lot of opportunities to go out and see what you like, try it, and if you don’t like it you really don’t lose anything. You only really have stuff to gain by giving it a go, I think.

[Agreement]

GB: Also I think you get a really unique relationship with your professor. When you have class, you can go to office hours and learn the material there, but with the professors for research you’re interacting quite a bit. You’re helping them with things and they have great connections, what with Ph.D students and other people, any companies they’re working with. They can really help you out later on. It’s really unique compared to what you get by just going to classes and going to office hours and things like that. You really get to know them.

TT: I think it’s just a good opportunity to go for it if you think you’re even the least bit interested. But if you have any sense of wanting to go to grad school or doing research I’d really go for it. Especially if you can get in as a first-year student and you decide you like your mentor and what you’re working with, staying with the lab for a few years is a big deal. You’ll build a lot of experience, you’ll build connections to companies and things like that, too.

GB: Mm-hmm.

LC: I’d say advice-wise, don’t be afraid to ask your mentor questions or admit that stuff isn’t working. My mentor’s always really thrilled when I come to him with questions and want to know more, want to have him help me troubleshoot something. But if you just blindly try things—

[Laughter]

LC: —For a bunch of time, you’re gonna waste everyone’s time. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, ‘cause no one’s gonna judge you for it, especially being a first-year student. They all should understand that you haven’t taken all the classes, so you might need some help sometimes.

My mentor is always really thrilled when I come to him with questions and want to know more …

– Logan Cummings, Mechanical Engineering, Class of 2023

Has your time with research impacted any plans you might have post-Mines?

EP: Yeah, I’d say before coming into Mines I was like, okay, I’m gonna get my undergrad and then I’m gonna go right off to work so I can pay for the thing I just did to myself—

[Laughter]

EP: —But now I think I’m looking at [grad school] as at least more of an option. If I’m able to do that, if the money works out, that’s something I’d be really interested in doing, as opposed to just kind of shutting it off.

GB: I still don’t know what I want to do.

[Laughter]

GB: But at least the research is good! We have four companies that we’re doing separate projects for within the same hydrate group. I think that’s been really cool, ‘cause we’ll have meetings and be on phone calls with these companies, and we get both industry and research. And that experience has been really different from what I’ve expected. But if anything, I love the experience right now. I’ll do internships with companies during the summer and figure out what I like more. I think at least a master’s could be in the picture, Ph.D probably not.

[Laughter]

TT: I think for me, I thought I wanted to go to grad school. It’s not that I don’t now, it’s like I feel a little more hesitant maybe because now I need to articulate to myself why I want to go. I want to continue researching and stuff, but  Want to make sure that I’m doing something that I really want to do.

LC: I don’t think it’s influenced my plans that much, I’ve kinda always known that I was at least gonna do grad school. If anything, it’s just kinda reinforced that a little bit, that I’m enjoying it and willing to pursue research, and that I should continue that.

That just about wraps this up. Any other cool stuff you want to share?

GB: I did get published in one paper—

All: Wow!

GB:—It made a graph and wrote a baby little part, and it went to the Offshore Technical Conference. I told my dad, “I got published! It’s like this baby graph and one little sentence, but it counts!”

TT: Yeah!

GB: That was not long after I started research, so I’ve done a lot more since then. But that was pretty cool, I felt.

TT: Yeah, that’s great! Congrats!

Int: And Logan, you’re going to be published, right?

LC: Yeah, he’s going to use some in the paper. He’s gonna tweak ‘em a bit. So yes, they’ll eventually be in there, but it’s just a matter of when I get all the other things lined up.