Name: Caitlin O’Connor
Can you provide an overview of your role and responsibilities with The Young Scientist Foundation?
My role is to mentor incoming high school or undergraduate students participating in The Young Scientist Foundation program. I am in lab, teaching students not only the day-to-day work, but also showing how scientific processes works.
What was the defining moment that sparked your own interest in science and research?
I always had a very strong interest in science, but got my first scientific research experience when I started my own undergraduate thesis research in college. It was the first time that I was coming into lab independently to perform experiments on my own time and I loved performing my own experiments and seeing the data at the end. Honestly, after that point I never looked back. I worked as an analytical chemist and then started graduate school at Case Western Reserve University.
When you became a mentor, how did you change the way you did your work?
I think the biggest change when I am working with a student is that I make sure that I take the time to explain every step of what we are doing and I encourage students to ask questions. There is a difference between the “how” and “why” in lab work. We spend a lot of time explaining “how” to do something, but I do not ever want one of my students to be working in the lab and not know the “why” behind it, so I frequently ask my students to explain to me what they are doing and why.
How is the program’s mentoring process designed?
The program is designed so that one or two students are paired with a graduate student mentor to work with during the summer. This keeps the group size small so students can focus on a particular project and feel comfortable asking questions.
How long have you been mentoring students?
I have been mentoring students for just over 2 years.
The summer training program lasts 10 weeks. How many hours a week do you spend mentoring a student?
A workweek in the training program is at least 40 hours and I spend that full time mentoring my students. I honestly never stop being a mentor. If my student is in lab, except for special circumstances, I am also there for guidance, help, and explanation. If I am not there, I am basically on call for my mentees. I have helped them with questions over text or email, sometimes I have even had them send photos of western blots and suggested next steps!
What is a typical day in the lab like for you? For a student you are mentoring?
I like to start the day with a meeting with my student to go over the progress that we have made so far and to outline the plan for the day. Sometimes I will have come in early and set up an experiment so that when my student comes in we are ready to begin. After going over the protocols and questions, we usually spend the rest of the day working on our experiments. We may do a quick recap at the end of the day, but if not, we regroup during the next morning when we meet.
What are the most satisfying and challenging parts of your work with students?
The most satisfying moments are when my students work more independently and start asking me questions that I do not have the answers to. It really shows how engaged they are in thinking about the big picture. I think the most challenging part is getting them to this point. It is all about getting them to think about the big picture and less on the little technical day-to-day things.
How does it feel to be responsible for the professional growth of multiple students in the lab?
I always hope that my mentees are getting the most out of what they want from this experience and I do my very best to provide students with tools to succeed. Vishnu, one of my students this summer, is participating in a national science competition. I am making every effort to help him with this process every step of the way, and it is a learning process for both of us, but I know that this experience is going to be so valuable for him and his future.
What are the things you wish the students were aware of prior to starting the program?
Science is not achieved by passive observation but by active participation. Sometimes students are nervous to ask questions because they feel like they already should know the answer, but they are missing out on the best opportunity to learn. Ultimately, I think that participating and asking questions is the best way to have a great and meaningful experience!
What are some of the key skills you teach in the lab?
There are a lot of different technical methods the students will learn over the summer, like western blots, cell culture and cell harvesting experiments, PCR, etc. Each of the graduate student mentors participate in a lab meeting, where we are assigned a week to present. During the summer, our students present with us and I help my students prepare for this meeting beforehand. I think the most important thing that I want students to learn is really understand the larger picture of why we are performing the research that we are doing. It is what helps the students interpret their data. Anyone can learn to run a western blot, but explaining what that western blot means at the end of the experiment is the challenging part.
How do you keep track of the students’ progress?
I do not have an official grading rubric to monitor students’ progress, but I gauge their progress based on their ability to work more independently and questions they are asking. I notice that as the summer goes on the questions become more advanced and forward thinking.
How do you encourage a student who is experiencing difficulties?
Everyone is going to make mistakes, especially technically. Usually, I am able to identify what went wrong and where, so we discuss ways to do it better. I also share some of the mistakes I have made, because I think that it helps for them to know that everyone will make mistakes over the course of their research, especially when they are doing something new!
How do you ensure the information you teach turns into applicable knowledge for students?
I think that the most applicable knowledge that students learn over the summer is not a protocol, but the skills involved in working independently, knowing when to ask for help, and just overall the larger picture of the research that we are working on. These are the things that I try to focus on in the day to day.
How do you teach autonomy and independent thinking in an environment that is team-oriented?
I think that autonomy and independent thinking come naturally when students and I are discussing experiments and the project that we are working on. When they are asking questions, they are thinking about the work and learning to put it in their own words. Eventually, I think it is this thinking process that makes students more confident in their abilities. I love it when one of my students will bring a piece of literature that they read on their own and want to discuss it. Sometimes it is a new idea that is worth pursuing and we design experiments to explore it. The laboratory environment is team-oriented, but it really only works when each individual is contributing and I think that a lot of the students get to take part in that.
How do you encourage novel ideas?
I encourage my students to read. Reading academic papers with my students allows me to go over what they understood and we can also discuss what the next steps would be. By asking future direction targeted questions and identifying gaps in research we develop novel ideas.
How do you give credit when credit is due?
Science is ultimately very collaborative. One person cannot achieve his or her scientific goals alone; everyone has different strengths that they bring to the table. This means that in presentations or in papers for submission, acknowledgements are one of the most important thing we do. This can be formal, like authorship on publications or posters, but also less formal, like a spoken acknowledgement when presenting data at a meeting. I also encourage students to send data that they obtained to Dr. Narla themselves and copy me on it so that Dr. Narla knows that it was them performing the work and achieving those results.
Why do you think so many students are drawn to The Young Scientist Foundation training?
I think that there are not a lot of opportunities for young students to get involved in scientific research, especially in a program like this that takes place over the course of 10 weeks. The time and the small group mentoring style allows the students to have a much more meaningful experience.
What is the best piece of advice you received in your life that you keep going back to?
I do not necessarily think that this is a piece of advice, but my parents were always extremely supportive and had a mentality that we would always make it work. This has continued to stick with me and I am appreciative for my “make it work” mentality; it has made setbacks and failed experiments much more bearable.
What are your professional aspirations? Where would you like to see your career go?
Currently, I’m pursuing my PhD in Pharmacology at Case Western Reserve University and ultimately, I would love to run my own research lab one day. Graduate school is my first experience researching in an academic setting, but I cannot really imagine doing anything else. Mentoring will always be a part of a scientist’s career and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn how to do that now, as I hope to mentor more students in the future.