Civil Engineering Senior Emily Underriner

Emily UnderinnerAs I sit and seek to reflect what I did actually learn about graduate school through this experience, several things come to mind. I feel I have had a glimpse into the world of graduate students that I would not otherwise have had. But only a glimpse- there is still so much that I do not know. I could only participate to a certain level since I do not have the knowledge and experience that graduate and Ph.D. students do have. I have learned that graduate students are especially intelligent, resourceful, and driven- distinctively so at the number two Environmental Engineering graduate school in the country.

Much of my pre-graduate internship was spent in the research laboratory. Mara, my mentor, and I started out simple- learning how to use the lab, what everything was, where to find pipettes, beakers, and needles, learning to safely mix water and sulfuric acid for column sampling, and learning how to correctly sterilize and wash laboratory dishes. I was required to take several safety courses prior to beginning work. Eventually, I was able to do several tasks well on my own, such as feeding the microorganisms, mixing media and different chemical solutions for use in experiments, changing out empty gas tanks, and making acid.

Another component of my learning experience under Mara included going to environmental research seminars and meetings. I was able to attend a few seminars during which other graduate students presented their research. Much of it I did not understand, but it was fascinating to learn about the research all the same. I was also able to meet other environmental graduate students and actually see them all together during the seminars. There were more graduate students than I expected. It was interesting to see the faces that we undergraduates see briefly and intermittently in the civil engineering building actually come together.

I also attended one meeting between the researchers in Mara's perchlorate treatment research and other researchers in mechanical engineering. The environmental engineers were consulting the mechanical engineers for their expertise in nanoscale zero-valent iron production. A possible new method for treatment of perchlorate had been discovered in their environmental research, and the mechanical engineers were experienced in producing the needed ion. It was fascinating to see the innerworkings of research projects. I was introduced to the reality of research not just coming together and working smoothly, but rather requiring new thought, hypothesizing, trying things out, and not always working.

This is a reality of research and graduate school that I believe engineering undergraduates do not understand until thrust into it. In our classes, the concepts and problem solving methods we learn are already well tread upon and explored. Our laboratories are structured and planned, handed to us on silver platters, and made to follow a specific path that has been proved to work. If they do not, they can be explained by some other reasoning also taught to us. Raw research, on the other hand, does not function in the same way. It is venturing into an unknown and unexplained world. I often observed Mara receive results from experiments and not understand why certain things happened. She would have to hypothesis why and try again. Mara had to construct much of the equipment that she uses in her research (which is still amazing and scary to me!), and sometimes there are problems. I received what I believe is a glimpse into the "vulnerability" of academia, or that professors and graduate and P.h.D. candidates do not always know exactly what they are doing and are not infallible. They are normal people like us. Undergraduate students typically only ever see professors and older students in professional situations.

I have learned that I love working in the lab. It is working in a different world, where mistakes can be extremely harmful and dangerous. The danger initially scared me, and scares me still. But the possibilities excite me. I love to tune out the world and work in what I see as a different one, a much, much smaller one (literally). It is difficult to imagine what the tiny wastewater bacteria do inside those amber bottles and how they actually "eat" their perchlorate, nitrate, and hydrogen, but it is fun to try. I feel that this experience has shown me that I would love graduate school. I have encountered people who really dislike working in labs, and now I know how I feel about it. I love learning, and working hard, and so I am now more confident that graduate school is what I want to do.

I was not so advanced that I performed any substantial experiments on my own, but I did help Mara with the day to day activities which probably are menial to her, but are not to me. I enabled her to spend more time on important things in the research process by helping her with the tedious tasks, and I love being able to serve her in that way. But it is important to mention that I did learn a huge amount about the research itself. It is exciting to be involved in a project that seeks to find the solution to treatment of perchlorate in drinking water, the largest groundwater contamination issue in Texas. A lot of the details of the research are beyond my understanding, but in taking the introductory environmental engineering class, and I am able to understand a good amount.

I feel as though I have still only scratched the surface. I have yet to actually feel what graduate students feel, think the way they do, interact the way they do. Is graduate school really much different from undergraduate school? Is the way I feel about graduate school just a starry-eyed, idealized notion that I have nurtured in my mind and imagination for so long that actually has no substance to it whatsoever? Probably somewhat. I did the same thing with college- I imagined it would be just like in the movies. I found out, upon the heaps of work, that this is not exactly true. But I am confident and excited in my decision to attend graduate school, and this internship has helped me to understand and explore that desire.