A Summer by the Bay

by Bingyan Shi

Research is a common activity for Cornell students.  However, I think it’s easy to forget that everyone’s research experience is unique.  In the summer of 2013, I had the chance to participate in a program in which I conducted research in marine microbiology at the San Francisco State University.  As a freshman who had just finished her first year at Cornell, I had found the program online, and was thrilled to get a taste of research, something I had heard so much about on campus.

My research project aimed at finding out why the marine phytoplankton Emiliania huxleyi produces calcium shells, which account for one of the largest deposits of organic carbon in the ocean. When I first heard about my research project, doubts about my ability to not only understand, but to actually design experiments definitely unnerved me.  However, the lab was very welcoming and kind which gave me the confidence to ask many questions, and as a result learn more than I ever imagined.  I even had the chance to use some impressive technology when I helped take photographs of my cell cultures using a scanning electron microscope.  Seeing these tiny cells clearly displayed on a black and white monitor under this multimillion-dollar piece of equipment was truly incredible.  The experience strangely resembled that of exploring the surface of a distant planet – just as mysterious and impossible to see with your naked eye.

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We found sting rays at the beach, but we released them right after!

Besides gaining hands-on experience, the program also gave me many insights into science as a profession.  All program participants attended a workshop on the ethics of research and I was shocked to learn about the unethical behavior committed by researchers in search of fame and funding.  From plagiarism to fabrication of data, such misconduct dispelled much of my own naiveté about being a scientist.  As a profession that pursues new knowledge, it still holds much honor and prestige.  However, I now realize that it is also an industry, driven by money and personal needs.  But in general, I was incredibly inspired by this program, especially by the other participants – motivated college students from across the US.  Some were upperclassmen already experienced in research.  They were so passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects, yet still so eager to learn.

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We had the opportunity to create fish during the camping trip!

One of the highlights of the program was a camping trip where everyone was excitedly pointing out to each other organisms they had studied, from salamanders to insect larvae.  For the first time, I found myself having serious and enjoyable discussions about science and what it means in our society in a non-academic setting.  I was also so humbled and fascinated to learn about the professors’ and other students’ backgrounds and talents, and to finally seeing how diverse the field of science really is.

At the end of summer, every student researcher had the opportunity to present his or her project to professors, graduates, and their parents at San Francisco State University in a symposium.  It was amazing to see all the different projects, ranging from DNA recombination to the study of salamanders in Northern California.  I felt a great sense of accomplishment and pride for my fellow student researchers and for myself.  Research, either in the biological sciences or otherwise, is not an easy field to be in.  Having an interest in the subject is not nearly enough.  Making meaningful discoveries requires a passion for your goal, discipline to report your results truthfully, and resilience and perseverance to perform tedious tasks over and over again –hard work that may not necessarily result in any findings. All these qualities I saw when I worked with my lab members, whose creativity and sense of humor also stood out to me as invaluable in science.  It was truly a rewarding environment to be in, where everyone constantly learned and helped each other.  I’m excited to learn about the lab’s future projects, and to engage in other research at Cornell as well.