Independence Within a Community: My Brackenridge Fellowship

It is hard to believe that my time as a Brackenridge fellow is drawing to a close. It feels like just yesterday that my graduate student mentor Shirley Duong was teaching me how to navigate the video coding tool Datavyu, which is the program we use to transcribe and code our recordings of home visits. Commands that I used to struggle to execute now flow off my fingers effortlessly.

I started working at the KiT Lab two weeks before the Brackenridge Fellowship commenced. This allowed me to become more familiar with the background literature on my research topic, the online programs that I would be using, and the lab team that I would be interacting with for the remainder of the summer. My project was part of the Parents Promoting Early Learning (PPEL) study, a collective effort involving other members of the KiT Lab. Thus, even though I often worked independently to explore the research aims for my project, I often collaborated with the greater lab team to work on other projects under the larger study.

One of the biggest contributions I made to this project was helping to develop a novel coding scheme for parent-child interactions. Specifically, we coded the level (high or low) of the questions asked by the parent or the child and the content of the questions, responses, and follow-ups. The lab team was still in the process of developing this coding scheme when I started working in the lab. As a fresh set of eyes, I was able to point out areas that I found ambiguous and make additions and modifications to the coding manual so that other researchers who want to use our manual in the future will have a clear grasp of our coding scheme. I enjoyed working in a such a supportive environment where my mentor listened to my questions and seriously considered any input I had.

Working in the KiT Lab this summer expanded my understanding of what undergraduate research can entail. In my previous undergraduate research opportunity, I worked in a wet lab at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Since the lab techs I worked with had a limited number of influenza and human vascular endothelial cell samples at their disposal, I spent a significant amount of my time in the lab training under them to ensure that I could execute the techniques and use the machines without error. This experience was very beneficial, as it gave me a glimpse into what it would be like to work in a hospital setting. However, I was not able to perform much independent work.

When I first started working at the KiT Lab, I was hesitant to complete any task on my own, since I knew how much time and effort the lab team had invested into the project so far and did not want to make a misstep due to my lack of experience. I was taken aback when my mentor encouraged me to work with the data by myself before she stepped in and provided any feedback. This is how she approached my training and assignments for the remainder of the fellowship. I found her approach extremely valuable, because even if it meant I had to spend more time working with the data, it gave me a greater understanding of how much time and effort it takes to conduct your own research project.

After I finish this last week of working in the KiT lab this summer, I plan on conducting further research in the lab under the mentorship of Dr. Melissa Libertus and Shirley Duong as part of a Bachelor of Philosophy degree and Honors Thesis in the Department of Psychology. After I graduate in two years, I will pursue my passion of helping improve the lives of children through science by attending the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine to become a pediatric dental professional.

I am forever grateful for the opportunities the Brackenridge Fellowship has given me by allowing me to work with the amazing team at the KiT Lab this summer. They have shown me the value of conducting research in a lab where each member can examine their own research interests while being surrounded by a caring, encouraging team that is willing to pitch in and help with others’ projects if need be. I will carry the skills I have acquired this summer with me as I pursue the next steps of my undergraduate career and beyond.

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