Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
The 27th Annual Markham Research Symposium was hosted at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) last week. During the event, students who have been awarded funds and scholarships through HMSC present their research via poster presentations or 5-minute “ignite” talks. Given how isolated and mostly remote academic events have been during the COVID pandemic, it was invigorating to have an in-person research event. The timing of the symposium was also strategically planned to occur during the first week of Hatfield’s REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) students’ arrival, and it felt special to have such a diversity of ages and career stages coming together to discuss science. While I was certainly expecting to have good conversations about research and receive feedback on my work, I was most surprised by how much this event inspired me to reflect on my first year as a graduate student. For this week’s blog I’d like to share some of these reflections I had while listening to the excellent keynote address and interacting with students during the poster session.
The symposium began with a keynote address by Dr. Elizabeth Perotti who identifies as a scientist, communicator, and a parent. Dr. Perotti works as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program (OAP). I was expecting to hear a 45-minute presentation on the latest ocean acidification efforts, but I was surprised and appreciated that Dr. Perotti spent her time mainly focused on discussing career development through the lens of her own winding career path. While I would have been equally excited to hear about her science communication and outreach work, I am glad she took the time to share her story and give advice based on her experiences. As someone who used to feel insecure about my non-linear path to science, it was validating and inspiring to hear about the variety of experiences that prepared her to take on her current position at NOAA. Dr. Perotti describes her career path as “clear as mud”, but acknowledged that there were several key mentors who helped her identify and shape her specific interests.
One of those mentors was the late Dr. Marian Diamond, who is renowned for her work on brain plasticity research. She was the first female science professor at Cornell and is considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience. She and her team pioneered the idea that the brain can change, and even improve, with the right stimulation. Dr. Diamond was the first person to study Einstein’s brain in the hopes of uncovering the secret to his high intelligence. She found that Einstein’s brain had more glial cells (which are now sometimes called “genius cells”) than the average person. These glial cells are known to nourish strong neuron connections and build a more complex brain structure. Dr. Diamond hypothesized that Einstein’s brain had more of these cells due to the high stimulation he put on his neurons. From the synthesis of this study and other fascinating experiments during her life’s work, Dr. Diamond suggested five core things the brain needs to continue development, regardless of age: diet, exercise, challenges, newness, and love. A healthy diet fuels the brain, exercise builds better brain cells, challenges and newness stimulate brain function, and love enriches our lives – each of these factors are shown to contribute to the neuroplasticity of our brains (Diamond, 2001). During the keynote, Dr. Perotti asked the audience to contemplate if they are pursuing a career that is fulfilling at least one of those core requirements. As I contemplated these “brain essentials”, I realized how my experience as a Master’s student in the GEMM lab actually fulfills each one of these, and I am excited by the science that suggests I may be producing more “genius cells” because of it!
Figure 1: Illustration showing Dr. Diamond’s suggested 5 core essentials for a healthy brain. Taken from: https://blog.stannah-stairlifts.com/society/marian-diamond-women-in-science/
First, the diet I’ve had over the past year has certainly been nurturing. During the field season in Port Orford, one of my favorite meals is when we are given locally-sourced and sustainably caught fish from Port Orford Sustainable Seafood in exchange for helping them process orders. When I am back in Newport and Corvallis, my lab mates and peers are always sharing homemade snacks and we frequently get together for meals (and when the weather is nice – picnics!)
Figures 2 & 3: To the left: Locally sourced salmon cooked by Lisa Hildebrand for one of the many 2021 Port Orford team dinners; To the right: Colorful plates on an impromptu sunny day picnic with Rachel Kaplan.
For exercise – it almost goes without saying that the field season in Port Orford is physically demanding. During data collection we are constantly alert and on our feet on the cliff site, or paddling continuously to stay on station to obtain good zooplankton and oceanographic samples.
Figure 4: Lisa Hildebrand and A. Dawn enjoying one of the last days of kayak sampling for the 2021 Port Orford field season.
Challenges – there are a variety of challenges to face as a new graduate student. Not only are there difficult, yet exciting questions to tackle, and new analysis skills to learn, but as Dr. Perotti discussed in her talk, there are also soft skills (communication, time/conflict management, task prioritization) that I am sharpening, which are equally important to master.
Newness – as a graduate student, almost everything feels new. I frequently feel I am out of my comfort zone. Especially during the past three terms, I find myself in the mental “growth zone” consistently. Between my coursework and getting to attend exciting seminars, I consistently learn something new on a daily basis. Despite having completed a field season last year, leading the team this year will also be new, and I anticipate a steep learning curve where I am excited to learn how to be a better scientist and mentor.
Lastly, the love I have experienced since starting my Master’s degree has been one of my most treasured aspects of my life here – love for my lab family and for the opportunity I have to be here. After the symposium I got together with a few lab mates and we journeyed to Nye Beach to watch the sunset. I appreciate that despite our busy schedules, we all make time to connect with each other and explore the beautiful coast we are privileged to call home.
Figure 5: Watching the sunset on Nye Beach never gets old, especially when you are with good friends. Photo credit: C. Bird.
Just as I incorrectly assumed the keynote would be solely research focused, I anticipated answering in-depth questions about my preliminary Master’s thesis analysis results at the poster session. While I did receive great questions and valuable feedback from mentors, which has already helped shape the next steps in my analysis, the interactions I had with the REU student cohort was very different. These budding scientists were more interested in my personal outlook on graduate school, and asked many questions that felt familiar to me. I let the undergraduates know that it was only a year ago that I graduated with my B.S., and shared many of those same, daunting questions about the next chapter of my career: “How do you know if a program is right for you?”, “How do you pick the right advisor?”, “What type of working environment should I be looking for?”. It was fulfilling to be able to echo the great advice Dr. Perotti gave during the keynote address, in which she encouraged students to find mentors, know their talents, learn how to communicate, and take a challenge.
Figure 6: Posing next to my Markam Symposium poster, excited to share my proposed research with peers and mentors. Photo credit: Lisa Hildebrand
I am extremely grateful to have received one of this year’s Mamie Markham awards, and for the opportunity to interact with younger career scientists who I can share my journey and experiences with. The symposium was good practice in communicating my work and stimulating food for thought as I move forward with my second year in graduate school.
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Diamond, Marian (2001) Successful Aging of the Healthy Brain. Conference of the American Society on Aging and The National Council on the Aging March 10, 2001, New Orleans, LA