Growing to Appreciate Trial & Error in STEM

Anisa Robinson, COL ’25, Jersey City, NJ

In my junior year of high school, I finally got to experience the practicalities of my passion: biological research. It was my first time in a certified lab, so I didn’t know what to expect. I came across new machines with complex functions and bacteria names that I had never once heard of. I began to feel overwhelmed by my inexperience, as I noticed how the lab’s protocols were already of second nature to my peers. Simply completing an assigned task for my mentor (at the time) became a growing concern, but just before I could voice any doubt or willingness to opt out, my mentor gave me a bit of advice: “There’s no need to be scared or nervous. We’re all here to learn. None of us got it on our first try.” Initially, I was taken aback by her authenticity, but as I spent the day shadowing her and discussing the many challenges to their experiments, the cookie-cutter image of biology I once had began to fade. From that moment on, I grew more fond of biology not just for its benefits to the world, but also for its nature of trial and error.

Fast-forward to my first year at Penn, I was able to continue expanding my exposure to STEM and its many challenges. During the last fall semester, I was accepted into the Penn FERBS program where I was given the opportunity (as a freshman) to join Dr. Wood’s ecology and evolutionary biology lab. Working with Dr. Wood and my newest mentor Mac Calvert during my freshman year introduced me to many new skills such as how to better comprehend science-based literature, study plant-microbe interactions, and how to quantify these symbioses.

The first day of work, of course, was not as easy as I thought it would be. I was given a couple of published papers to read and analyze so I could be up-to-date with the lab’s research. I broke down advanced jargon with my mentor, and then we began discussing the physical tasks that I would be assigned throughout the semester. My job was to weigh roots and nodules as well as record the number of nodules and galls on the roots of the plants we studied. These procedures would augment a phylogenetic analysis into studying the genetic tradeoff that exists between parasitism and mutualism in legumes.

Of course, it took me a while to get used to these steps, and by the end of the school year there was still so much to learn. Fortunately, with the help of the Career Services Summer Funding, not only was I able to further master the assignments from the school year, but I had the chance to take on new projects this summer, encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone. For the first time, I learned how to code in R: a programming language used for statistical analysis and generating graphs. My main focus this summer was to use this program to design a workflow for executing multiple sequence alignment and for generating operational taxonomic units. I spent hours each day researching with my mentor everything down to the command line for the workflow. At some point, we began incorporating and researching into other softwares such as Mothur and Seaview to return consensus sequences and other phylogenetic data. Working alongside another undergrad on the same project, despite how challenging it was, we were able to conclude this summer’s session with a great rough draft of the code for this genome wide association study.

Since I will be returning to this lab in the fall, because of Career Services, I will get a head start in presuming my work in the lab with Dr. Wood and Mac. Thus, I look forward to not only advancing my lab’s research towards publication this school year, but also being able to continually experience the thrill of trial and error in biological research.

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2022 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services