Becoming a Researcher

Undertaking a research project sounds intimidating, at least to me. I never thought I would be doing research of my own during my time here at Pitt, but here I am. I did not even know that I could get involved with research as an undergraduate student until last semester, after giving a presentation in my Ecosystem Ecology class. I had read an article entitled Scientists Use Century-Old Seaweed to Solve a Marine Mystery, by Annie Roth, and gave a presentation about it to my classmates and professor, Dr. Emily Elliott. After I had given the presentation, Dr. Elliott reached out to me and told me about the herbarium at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the extensive archive of samples they have. Dr. Elliott has done extensive research using stable isotope bio-geochemistry and taught me and my classmates about carbon and nitrogen isotopes. I chose this particular article for my presentation because I was intrigued by their research that used isotopic analysis to track sources of nitrogen to seaweed at the time the samples were taken. Dr. Elliott introduced me to one of her colleagues at the Carnegie Museum, who connected me with Dr. Mason Heberling, the Assistant Curator and Botany Co-chair of Collections at the Museum. Dr. Heberling gave me a tour of the herbarium, and after seeing their collection, I was excited about the possibility of sampling some of the species and doing analyses of my own. With some help from Dr. Elliott and Dr. Heberling, I was able to make this a reality.  I applied for the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship and contacted my advisor about the possibility of doing an independent study alongside Dr. Elliott. I was beyond grateful and excited when I was awarded the fellowship, and after reaching out to my advisor again, I was approved to take on the project. Dr. Heberling and the Carnegie Museum approved my request to take samples from their archive, and I realized that just like that, I was going to become a researcher.

After my project was approved, I began discussing potential ideas for my project with Dr. Elliott, Dr. Daniel Bain, Dr. Josef Werne, and Dr. Mason Heberling. After some discussion, I decided on a sampling design that included two species, Red Maple, (Acer rubrum) and Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederaceae L.). Once I had selected the species, time periods, and locations I wanted to use for my sampling, I went to the museum and collected the specimens to use for my analyses of the isotopic composition (13C, 15N) of the plant tissues. I then started my work in the lab, grinding up each specimen and preparing them for isotopic analysis. I am currently working on finishing the lab work so I can look for differences in the C-N concentrations and isotopic composition of the plant tissues. We are hoping to learn how Pittsburgh air pollution history has impacted vegetation, specifically impacts to photosynthesis from darkened skies.

I would encourage any student at Pitt who is interested in doing any kind of research to go for it. Pitt has so many resources to help students explore their passions and so many wonderful professors that can help them along the way. It can feel a bit intimidating to think about starting your own research project, but there are plenty of people that are willing to help you figure out where to begin. If you have an idea, reach out to your professors and peers and do not be afraid to ask for guidance.

After graduation, I hope that I will have the opportunity to undertake more research projects related to environmental science. This research opportunity has been a great learning experience and has helped me begin to acquire an understanding of the research process and hands-on experience in the lab. I think that my studies here at Pitt prepared me well to take on this experience and will help me in my post-grad endeavors.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Lorraine Thomas says:

    Sarah, I think it is wonderful that you took on this research project, I am very proud of you, Love Gram

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