Meandering Growth: My Experience

Turns out, research is not exactly what I thought it to be.  While some parts of the process did meet my expectations (the frustrations, grammar checks, meetings, etc.), there were moments that changed my understanding of conducting research.  The first realization I made was the value in having someone to contact for a specific issue.  At one point in my research I was trying to understand a naming method for lengths of river.  I could not find an explanation in writing, so I reached out to my community partner who put me in touch with the Hollow Oak Land Trust who then put me in touch with the Port of Pittsburgh.  My answer, which was only a few short sentences, was received after less than 24 hours and an efficient chain of emails.  This interaction revealed to me that the answers in research are not always best found in books pulled off shelves or articles on a website.

However, my assumption that research is a learning experience was met.  As for personal outcomes, I have gained an ability in my first coding language, realized and explored the potentials of moving large datasets between that language and ArcMap to perform geospatial analyses, and networked with many interested parties that made this experience possible.  It was extremely fulfilling to apply these skills to the scope of my research, the Greater Pittsburgh Region, as I have been a long-time resident and student of the water quality issues facing the Three Rivers.  Now that I have been able to develop a specific set of skills and exercise them on water quality issues, I feel elated to have applied my college experience to the real world.

Variability of Pittsburgh river color by pool. Color is measured as dominant wavelength, a quantitative interpretation of color, in nanometers.

The process I followed in this research experience was not always smooth.  Learning the coding language, R, was a huge step in itself.  Although navigating a hiccup might have taken a few hours of time but only three lines of my screen, the struggle pushed me to understand what I had to do when it came up again.  There were also challenges in storing and maneuvering the large amount of data I was working with as it needed to be both centralized and organized.  I would sometimes forget the name of a specific file I needed to locate or saved others to the wrong folder.   And when something large went wrong, like an accidental deletion, I had to comb through my previous steps to get to where I had been.  To sum it up, it was a challenge of coherence; how could I reduce all this information in order to address a hypothesis when it was so difficult to simply gather it all up in my arms?  Nevertheless, persisting through these challenges and keeping metadata on-hand helped me to finish through.

The financial assistance provided allowed me to take this experience in stride as an opportunity for personal growth and exploration.  There are many expenses in college, from the day-to-day to the looming tuition fees.  I am extremely grateful that I could take this summer as an opportunity of learning instead of only just a preparation for the Fall semester’s fees.  As I enter my senior year and move off-campus for the first time, I do so with both financial independence and developed skills that would not have been possible without the support of the Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education, and Outreach,  Three Rivers Waterkeeper, and Pitt Honors College.

I plan to spend the immediate future taking in the revisions and advice of the Collaboratory’s Leadership Team as I have submitted my final deliverables for review.  The project has brought up a few interesting questions that, now that the data is tidied and centralized, would be provided with a running start.  There is also a lot more maneuverability to explore these implications on community scales and through stakeholder input now that the base database is finished and we have an understanding of utilizing it.  I am excited to see how water color continues forward as an indicator of quality as my research advisor, Dr. John Gardner, explores the implications on a larger scale and expertise.

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