My Experience as a 2011 SMART Scholar
My name is Keia Faison and I am a sophomore Biology major and Chemistry minor. Since a very early age, my goal has been to pursue a career in the scientific field. Although I have life science views about social change, the environment and how to change the world, I also have a physical science drive inside of me that wants to find out why things happen and how things work. My purpose for choosing UNC-Chapel Hill was not only because of its position as one of the leading liberal arts institutions in the nation but also its potential for opportunities that would allow me to intimately explore issues from all angles. To this end, I have specifically sought out competitive educational opportunities, including research, in order to obtain a foundation in lifelong learning tools, such as critical and analytical thinking, problem solving, and a firm grasp of the scientific process. The Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) planted the seed of my current research today.
I started my research journey with OUR the summer before my freshmen year in 2010 through the Duke Energy Biosciences Scholar (DEBS) Program. I enrolled in my first college course during the summer and spent at least 20 hours per week over the course of 8 weeks, shadowing and participating in research under my undergraduate SMART mentor, Michelle Ajumobi, my graduate mentor, Alice Pilo, and my Principal Investigator Dr. Gary Glish. We focused on the CID of Sodiated Peptides using Tandem Mass Spectrometry. More specifically, we compared the peptides, NaYGGFL and NaYGGFLX, using different analytical techniques. Apart from introducing me to advanced areas of science that I would eventually study in more depth in the coming years, my experience in the lab taught me a lot of valuable mental lessons. For one, patience is key and every little action counts in the lab. I had never really done, nor did I realize this type of abstract research existed. I learned that research does not always entail making ground breaking discoveries. Uncovering small details brings us that much closer to understanding larger concepts. For example, we often think of the general umbrellas of topics such as “Cancer Research,” but never really think of the thousands of undergoing projects that have or will have an impact on our knowledge of such a vast and complex system. It was interesting to learn that so many areas of research are connected in a sense.
The next summer I, myself, became a Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track (SMART) scholar/mentor. SMART provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in the STEM disciplines. I was able work a lot more independently in the Chemistry Department under the direction of my graduate mentor, Michael Tycon, and my faculty advisor, Dr. Christopher J. Fecko. Our lab explores the physical properties of biological systems using microscopy techniques. Overall, we wish to develop a greater understanding of the impact of the cellular environment. In addition to my independent project investigating the effects of fluorescent YOYO-1 dye on DNA under single-molecule conditions, I was able to mentor another DEBS student. Through this research, we were able to conclude that staining biological specimens, a common small step in most scientific procedures, is damaging and can lead to an entirely skewed experiment. I definitely developed an appreciation for accuracy and precision through this project and was able to apply almost everything I’ve learned in my chemistry courses to my experiences in the lab. It is noteworthy that our findings have been submitted for publication to the Biophysical Journal. In addition, I really felt like I was a part of an exclusive yet close-knit community in my lab, which was great to have, especially on such a large campus!
I would recommend anyone who is interested in seeking answers to their questions to consider undergraduate research. Not only questions in subjects of STEM fields, but with questions about ANYTHING. Research is limitless and there are so many topics to choose from. Seek out professors who have similar questions and passions as you that will guide you in the path to finding out those answers. Be persistent and don’t let those questions go unanswered. If you can’t find someone on campus with the answers, you can start your own project! You will not only challenge your own thinking, but you’ll have a great influence on the world around you.