How a summer reseach experience changed my life

Experiences

How a summer reseach experience changed my life

Katie Koprowski

December 14, 2021

ABE

Picture this: green and yellow stalks of corn rustling in the wind. The roots of the corn reach into the deep depths of the fertilizer-infused soil. Unbeknownst to the viewer of this agricultural field, phosphorus and nitrogen ions from the soil’s fertilizer are being absorbed by the roots of the crops. The corn eagerly takes in these nutrients to develop new leaves and the beginnings of a flower bud.

Also unbeknownst to the viewer is the fact that it is about to rain. The viewer is taken by surprise when rain clouds begin forming over their head. With a slight plop, a raindrop lands on the tip of the viewer’s nose. The viewer quickly scans the area for cover but instead notices that the corn stalks seem to be rustling more eagerly as if they are excited that their thirst for water will finally be quenched.

Due to the casual viewer’s lack of scientific knowledge, they were unaware that the rainwater on this Midwestern agricultural field was absorbing phosphorus from the fertilizer that was applied to the crops. This contaminated water runs off to a nearby stream and leads to algal bloom, and eventually a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. There, no life can survive until a solution shows itself.

Luckily, part of a solution showed itself at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s 2017 Summer ACES High School Research Apprentice Program (RAP), where I, a then rising-HS Senior, worked alongside PhD ABE candidate, Bianca Bailey, and a team of six others, to investigate if Iron Filings could reduce Phosphorus levels in agricultural effluent water. A 5 week-long Summer program, the RAP enables High School students to explore and complete a research project that relates to one of the College of ACES’ disciplines alongside a team of fellow student researchers and a graduate or faculty mentor.

Me (far left) and the rest of the  RAP Summer 2017 team in lab coats in front of ABE building.
Me (far left) and the rest of the  RAP Summer 2017 team in lab coats in front of ABE building.

Initially introduced to the RAP program at a College of ACES info session held at the Peggy Notebaert Chicago Nature Museum during the Fall of my Junior year, I was drawn to this program because of the opportunity to explore and conduct engineering-related-research at a world-renowned research institution, to familiarize myself with a college atmosphere, and to widen my perspective on what it would be like to study ABE in college.

I can tell you I was filled with excitement when I went to gather the results of the Phosphorus filtration experiment. My graduate student mentor had tried many other materials to dissolve phosphorus in runoff water, all of which had failed. There was no guarantee that iron turnings, a waste product of making machinery, could work, but it did have solid scientific reasoning.

My inner reflections continued as I neared the data analysis room. This experiment was important to both myself and the world. This research project solidified my interest in studying Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois. The experiment was incredibly fascinating and I wished to conduct similar research projects in college. I admired the ability of our team, composed of members from a diverse set of backgrounds, to use our personal insights to make a cohesive product. I learned that this technique in approaching collaborative research would be applicable to my future experimental endeavors in college.

Furthemore, this summer research experience provided me with the valuable opportunity to connect and collaborate with faculty in the ABE department on Biological Engineering research before applying to UIUC. These close collaborations with faculty members and graduate students in the department elucidated the small-family-like atmosphere in the ABE department. In a university with thousands of students, I realized that there would always be faculty and staff members in ABE who knew me by name, and who were eager to support and empower my academic endeavors.

My teammates and I  gathered around water research lab scientist to get the results of the Phosphorus batch experiment.
My teammates and I  gathered around water research lab scientist to get the results of the Phosphorus batch experiment.

I entered the data analysis room in nervous excitement. The data-analyzer approached me with focused enthusiasm. There was a reduction in phosphorus levels! The experiment my mentor and I conducted was a success: changing the world and my life forever.

I concluded that although my interests diverted into other artistic areas like ballet, my main interest was now research. It would be my future career and passion. My dream now was to become a researcher like my mentor and to create new Biotechnology innovations. This research project would aid the world: installing an iron turnings filter in a tile near agricultural effluent streams would remove phosphorus, prevent algal bloom, and reduce the deadzone of the Gulf of Mexico.

The benefits of the Research Apprentice Program continued to reap during my undergraduate experience at the U of I. Upon acceptance to the ABE program, I was offered an Ignite research fellowship to work with a faculty member in the ABE department my Freshman year of college! My research project focused on studying the effectiveness of herbal antibacterials on inhibiting E. coli and Fecal Coliform in water. Under the guidance of ABE professor Dr. Davidson, I was able to design my own experimental protocol, collect data in the Spring of 2019, and write my findings in a research publication--all of which I had previous experience doing in RAP.

Thanks to RAP, research has played a huge part in my college career. 
Thanks to RAP, research has played a huge part in my college career. 

During my Sophomore and Junior year, I then went on to work with Fina Healy (fellow ABE Senior) on essential oil water antibacterial undergraduate research with the Global Food Security Internship. As a Junior and Senior, I have worked as an undergraduate research assistant in Dean Bashir’s lab studying the ability of graphene Field Effect Transistors to detect neurotransmitters, nucleobases, or SARS-CoV-2 at the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory. 

All in all, the RAP propelled me onto a path to pursue undergraduate research and research as a career! Equipped with the skills gained from my RAP experience such as wet-lab techniques, data analysis, public speaking, collaborative and communicative problem solving, and interpersonal relationship-building with colleagues and faculty, I was prepared to not only succeed in college, but also in my future research endeavors.