Chemistry (Plant Biology Pre-Grad Intern) Junior May Chou

May ChouI have always wondered if I wanted to go to graduate school. A big question of mine was if I would be cut out to handle at least another 2 to 4 years of school after my undergraduate studies to pursue a graduate degree in earning a masters or PhD degree. I knew that graduate school would take a lot of devoted effort, time, and hard work. Even though I have had experience in an undergraduate research lab for a year and a half and saw firsthand the research and hard work of graduate student Lalita Calabria, who had just recently received her PhD, I still did not know a lot about graduate school until I heard about the IE Pre-graduate School Internship program that was available. I heard about this program from another graduate student, Schonna Manning, who later became my mentor. I was familiar with her research because she had shared a research lab with Dr. Calabria, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to find out more about graduate school through this program.

A fellow student/classmate also participated in this program with the same mentor as I did, so it was helpful to talk about what we were learning with each other and compare ideas and thoughts about what our educational future would be. Our main duty was to be in undergraduate research lab with our mentor to learn about her research. Schonna is working toward a PhD degree in plant biology and her research is in the isolation, purification, and analysis of Prymnesium (type of toxin) in algae. We learned various chemistry procedures/techniques and gained knowledge of mostly organic chemistry, even though this is an undergraduate research biology lab. All of this provided me with a lot of insight into what kind of research I might do if I decided to go into graduate school. Since I am chemistry major, the knowledge of chemistry I gained from this experience have helped me not only with my undergraduate chemistry courses and laboratories, but also about pursuing graduate school in the future.

During this semester, we also had the opportunity to tour UTEX, the culture collection of algae of UT. Since Schonna's research deals with algae, the opportunity to visit and take a tour of UTEX expanded our knowledge of this subject. UTEX is one of the largest collections of algae in the United States, holding approximately 3,000 different strains of algae. They provide many of the algae for biotechnology development and research, and to the research and teaching to many other universities and graduate students. It was such an interesting experience to take the tour and see so many different types of algae ranging from the typical green algae, to red, yellow, and even bright pink algae.

One of the most valuable experiences I had this semester was the week when Schonna had her oral test and presentation that she had to present about her research in front of a panel of 5 professors. I was put in charge of the undergraduate research lab since I had past experience and was familiar with Schonna's research from the semester before. I never had so much responsibility considering there were 7 other undergraduate research students who relied on me to give them lab assignments and duties, and to be able to answer any of their questions. Also, Schonna was relying on me to keep things in the lab running smoothly and to teach some new research procedures/techniques to the other students. My goal that week was to keep everything organized, finish the assignments that Schonna had given me for the undergraduate research lab, and to make sure that the assignments and duties given to the other students were educational. Not only did I have to remember how to do the new and common everyday lab procedures/techniques, but I also wanted to be able to explain specifically the reasons we were doing them and how they applied to Schonna's research. That week I always had a list of things to do to make sure I did not forget anything. It was a stressful week but was a great experience to become more knowledgeable in Schonna's research and to be a semi-graduate student for the week.

The reason why I say semi-graduate student is because I was not nearly as stressed as my mentor was since I only had to run the lab and not prepare for any presentations. That same week I saw how much work Schonna put forth outside of the research lab, and how stressful it can be to be a graduate student. She was studying all the time and working on a power point presentation, and also was there to answer any questions if I had any. During the oral test and presentation she had to prepare for and present, the panel of 5 professors were allowed to ask Schonna anything that dealt with her major and/or her research. These questions could have been anything dealing with the undergraduate classes that she had at least a few years ago, or any recent questions dealing with her research.

Not only did the duties that my mentor had for me helped me better understand and see what graduate school was all about, but the meetings that we went to were helpful as well. There were many different students with different majors and goals, but we all wanted to learn about graduate school. The meetings question and answer meetings with the faculty and graduate students were very helpful as well since we could have many of our questions answered. From what they do on a regular basis, what colleges expect on applications, what kinds of funding are available, etc.

This program was a worthwhile experience. I learned so much about graduate school from my mentor and do not feel as confused as before. During this semester, I thought about graduate school more and whether or not I should decide to apply to graduate schools. Since graduation is a year away from now for me to receive my BS in chemistry, I finally decided to start applying to graduate schools and studying for the GRE. Because of this program, it helped me decide to make another goal for myself, to get into graduate school and to pursue a degree in chemistry. I still have many things to think about, for example, which schools I want to apply to, how many schools I want to apply to, whether to pursue a masters or a PhD, what kind of research I would like to do, etc. I am very glad that I decided to participate in this Pre-graduate School Intern program and be able to have a mentor who taught me so much and answered many of my questions I had about graduate school.