Nutritional Sciences Pre Grad Intern Stephanie Wells

Stephanie WellsWith its focus on preparing students to be successful in academia beyond an undergraduate degree, the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship has undoubtedly been one of the most valuable and practical educational experiences of my undergraduate career. This internship exposed me to what it is really like to be a graduate student, realities impossible to learn from hearing others speak about graduate school in the abstract. I entered into the internship with a vague idea of what it might be like, but left with a greater understanding and appreciation for graduate school and the enriching experience it is sure to be.

As a first-generation college student, I spent most of my time in school completely ignorant of what attending graduate school actually meant. It was always a mystery, a concept that seemed to have importance but remained elusive. Navigating undergraduate classes with no advice or insight from my family was difficult enough, let alone attempting to decipher what graduate students do. One of the reasons I found this internship so valuable is the pairing of undergrads with mentors who are actively involved in graduate school. My mentor, Namrata Sanjeevi, was an incredibly helpful and supportive resource, providing advice on everything from choosing a lab to the importance of maintaining professional relationships. She did an amazing job of filling in gaps in the concept of graduate school I had formed in my head.

The bulk of my internship consisted of helping Namrata with her research project on dietary quality of participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. I started by conducting a literature review of recent papers on proposed improvements to the program and studies on the program's efficacy in beneficially impacting diet quality. This search helped to broaden my understanding of the program's shortcomings and how Namrata's study could eventually be used to help make improvements. I also helped with participant recruitment by attending a health fair at an apartment complex in East Austin. Here I observed how time-consuming it can be to find subjects that both qualify and are willing to participate in a study in addition to how providing compensation can be effective in influencing people's willingness to participate.

Data entry was surprisingly interesting. I was responsible for entering information from grocery receipts into spreadsheets and entering food frequency questionnaire data into nutrient analysis software. While entering the information was quite tedious, it gave me a glimpse of the dietary patterns of SNAP participants and how food purchasing habits tend toward high-fat, high-sugar processed foods and away from fresh fruits and vegetables as the financial benefits received at the beginning of the month dwindle. This further instilled in me an appreciation for how Namrata's study might be used to improve the health of millions of struggling Americans. Currently, Namrata has data on the dietary patterns of numerous SNAP participants and will soon be able to analyze the effects of benefit distribution timing on dietary quality.

The most stressful part of my internship was also one of the most valuable. I attended weekly lab meetings with my mentor, faculty supervisor, and other graduate students working in the same lab. There I was required to report on my activities and their importance in regards to Namrata's entire project and eventually being published. This made me quite nervous, but forced me to think and reflect on why I had been doing certain things. "Why?" certainly seems to be the question that most often comes up in research and other graduate activities. Lab meetings were also valuable because they allowed me to learn about studies being conducted by the other graduate students present and to observe the troubleshooting process in regards to study design. Hearing attempts to overcome design flaws and failed plans helped me realize just how important epidemiology and statistics classes will be when I try to design my own research project.

Being an economically disadvantaged first-generation college student, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Kuhn Scholars program as part of the IE internship. Being part of a community of students with our similarities and listening to their stories of success contributed to my decision to pursue graduate school. Additionally, participating in workshops led by Anthony Heaven on resumes, CVs, and personal statements gave me a practical head start on my future graduate school applications. I look forward to our upcoming volunteer opportunity, which will certainly be a rewarding experience in serving the Austin community.

Overall, participating in this internship has given me confidence that I will be able to succeed in a graduate program and that it will be a truly rewarding and enriching experience, allowing me to pursue my passion for nutrition and disease prevention in a highly focused setting. The thought of having to design my own research project used to be daunting, but helping my mentor with her research has given me more clarity on the type of work involved and what to expect from such an experience. In addition, I have a much better idea of the type of research I would like to conduct; while my mentor focused on community-based research, I now believe my interests lie in a more clinical setting, perhaps comparing different types of diets on various health parameters. Whatever the case, the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship has left me with a sense of accomplishment and given me confidence in my future academic endeavors.