Biology (Ecology, Evolution & Behavior IE Pre-Grad Intern) Senior
Elsa Yeung

Elsa YeungWhen I started planning my research project last spring semester, I was extremely excited. With some help from my graduate student mentor, Deepa, I created a project that I would independently carry out in the next semester. Building on Deepa's idea, we drew up an experiment to examine foraging behavior in butterflies. Ultimately, we wanted to find out if there was any pattern to their foraging and whether different types of butterflies - long range flying vs. short range flying - would have different foraging strategies. I wrote up a proposal and submitted it to the Office of Undergraduate Research and, to my delight, I was awarded some funding for my project. We seemed off to a good start. Now I only had to wait until it got warm enough for the butterflies to come out.

I started taking observational data late in the spring semester and continued it in the summer for 2 weeks. Here is where things started getting tricky. I could only stay in Austin for 2 weeks during the summer before I had to be in Dallas for a summer internship. During these two weeks, I planned to get most of my data so that I could spend the next semester mostly analyzing data and writing up a paper. Unfortunately, those two weeks turned out to be too wet and chilly for butterflies. I managed to get some data, but nowhere near the amount that I had wanted to get. In addition, my experiment procedures turned out to be easier said than done. I ended up having to cut out parts of the experiment that I had written in my procedure and focused on a single part of it instead. At the end of the two weeks, I had a measly 70 data points, some of which could not even really be used for one reason or another.

Needless to say, I was pretty frustrated. My dream project had somehow turned into a mess of inadequate, semi-valid observations and a whole side of my original proposal had been ignored. I felt like starting over, but there was no time. I had to leave Austin with my project way behind schedule.

When I came back to UT for the fall semester, it was still warm enough for me to take observations on butterflies, but now I was pressed for time. This has been one of the busiest semesters I have ever had at UT. I spent a large amount of time in September applying to veterinary school and it was difficult to balance that, my normal schoolwork, and taking observations in the field. Had I been better at managing time, I probably could have done it, but I ended up compromising my field observations in order to focus on the other two. I'm not sure this was the best choice, but I have definitely learned to plan ahead for field projects! Pretty soon, it got too cold for the flowers I was observing and they were no longer putting out flowers to attract butterflies. Observations would have to wait until the next spring. I had acquired more data during the fall, but it still was not sufficient enough for me to really say anything significant about my topic if I were to write a paper on the project. I was at a loss. Not only was my project incomplete, it didn't even have enough data for me to analyze properly. Deepa and I spent some time trying to apply statistical tests to what I had, but no significant trends could be detected in my small sample size.

But my story is not a tragedy. It is quite the opposite, and though I was disappointed in myself for not being able to complete the project, I realized I had learned a lot by doing this internship and by undertaking the project to begin with. I always knew that research projects never go as planned, but now that I have actually experienced the breakdown of a proposal I am better prepared the next time around. I know now that unexpected things will happen and that I will have to do my best to get things back on track as fast as possible. My project is not a failure even though it is incomplete, and in fact, I have learned many things that I had hoped to learn from the graduate school internship. I feel more prepared for graduate school now, since I have had a preliminary run at creating a research project, and I am grateful I had the chance to make mistakes now before I got to the real thing.

My research project was the focus of my internship, but we also attended some seminars put on by the department of integrative biology. I was exposed to many different types of research here and got to see what graduate school seminars were like. I was very impressed by the level of interest in the audience of eager graduate students! These seminars were so much fun compared to my biology classes full of snoring, indifferent students. They got me very excited about what graduate school would be like, and I think that I would eventually like to go. However, though I am graduating at the end of this semester, I have decided to wait to apply to graduate school. I feel I am still not ready to commit to something so serious as a dissertation and I would like some time off to figure out what I would really like to study and develop my interests more.

On our original internship contract, we had stated that Deepa would help me with my graduate applications and I fully expected myself to complete applications to several graduate schools in addition to veterinary schools (which is another career path I am considering). However, after asking several UT professors for advice and after perusing numerous lab websites, I came to the conclusion that waiting would be the right choice. I had also heard from many graduate students at UT that taking time off is a valuable experience, and I have decided to follow their advice and take some time to really think about what I want to do in the future. After graduating next month, I will explore what options I have and perhaps do something unrelated to biology before I decide to apply for graduate school.

This internship really allowed me to experience a slice of life in graduate school and has helped me reach my current decisions about what I will do in the recent future to achieve the goals of my distant future. I have learned the ups the downs of creating a research project and I have had a peek into the current world of research, which I hope to soon be a part of. Really, the best way of figuring out whether graduate school is right for me or not is if I actually give it a try myself and do the things graduate students are expected to do. I am happy to have been a part of this internship and will definitely use the knowledge I have gained from it in many years to come.