Titmice, EEGs, and My Quest to Be a Real Scientist

I won’t spend another blog post drawing your attention to my past (and present?) difficulties in lab (see “Beakers and Flasks” if you’re down for that), but I did want to talk about what this semester has meant for my growing interest in neuroscience, and my continuing quest (struggle?) to be some sort of scientist one day.

Unless you are really sure about what you want to do when you start college (in which case, I’m already pretty skeptical), your first two years probably aren’t going to feel super specialized academically. In my case, freshman year was spent scanning the course catalog for pre-med requirements, first-year seminars that caught my eye, or more Spanish classes because I had so much fun that first fall. Although it was always in the back of my mind, I wasn’t necessarily governed by a major or a career goal. I wanted balanced semesters—half problem sets and half papers is the ideal—and the diverse academic experience promoted by liberal arts colleges.

But of course, as much as I love Swat, I’m not trying to spend more than four years here, and with that graduation timeline comes the declaration of majors and minors in the spring of sophomore year. Those who have followed my blog posts already know about my love for the Spanish department, so the fact that I declared a Spanish minor shouldn’t come as a surprise. The explanation for neuroscience is a little more complex: specifically something nerdy about loving both molecular science and human interaction, and wanting to investigate how minuscule neuronal processes come to dictate our day-to-day well-being.  

A relic from advising period: that time I planned my next four semesters on a napkin.

However, if you’ve been following my blog posts, you may have been witness to my struggle of feeling as if I don’t belong in the scientific community. Like maybe the subject matter doesn’t come as easily as it should, or maybe I’m too anxious for a lab environment, or maybe I’m too psychology-oriented to also be into hard sciences. And thus I am describing this semester as the one in which I have continued to validate my interest in neuroscience, and my position in the STEM community. Maybe even the semester in which I became a Real Scientist.

Martin Biology building in spring.

I spent a large portion of December, January, and February applying for REUs—Research Experiences for Undergraduates—at 10-plus universities up and down the East Coast. Some were neuroscience-related, some involved molecular biology, and I might have sprung for one in biomedical engineering on a whim. I spent a large portion of March and April getting rejected from every single one (keep your eyes peeled for a blog post on failure).

However, if there’s anything that will require you to dredge up every single vaguely-science-y activity you’ve ever taken part in, reach out to every professor who’s ever taught you in the natural sciences, and spend time googling the difference between incredibly similar subdivisions of biology, it’s applying for research positions. I thought back to my introductory stat project that attempted to correlate (alas, p=.34) campaign expenditures with electoral success, and the time I spent volunteering at a free medical clinic over winter break. I remembered all the times I came to Alchemist tutoring sessions for organic chemistry, and I hoped my professor would keep that in mind for my letter of recommendation. I thought about a conference with my lab instructor in which, after giving me perhaps the best grade I’ve ever gotten at Swarthmore, he asked me how I learned to write a bio report so well. And even though every email that began with “we regret to inform you…” hurt more than I wanted it to, I think that the process brought me closer to being a scientist.

This semester I’m taking a cognitive neuroscience seminar that meets once a week for three hours to discuss current research on attention, memory, and language. One day I led our class journal club, presenting an EEG paper that explained short-term memory difficulties in older adults. At the end of the semester, I will write a paper evaluating the validity of a Psychology Today article by comparing it to the original research paper that substantiates it. I remember realizing one day at breakfast, amid colored pens and readings on speech perception, that if med school doesn’t work out, I think I could be completely happy peer-reviewing neuroscience papers for my profession.

Last week’s colored pens/CogNeuro seminar readings combination.

In my Research, Design, and Analysis class, a psychology methods course, I’m currently conducting a research project on gender biases in the academic profession as indexed by participants’ pronoun usage on a mock creative writing task. As a group, we’ve had to assemble a literature review, design an objective and appropriately deceptive survey, and collect data (which usually involves harassing our friends on Facebook). In the coming weeks, we will code our responses into a data analysis program and conduct several statistical tests (my love of p-values sometimes tells me I should have been a stat major, but that’s another story).

Psych research displayed in Sci Commons aka how I would know I made it at Swat.

And finally, in my populational biology course, I’m conducting an independent animal behavior project that looks at fleeing behavior in the tufted titmouse, as (presumably) initiated by passing cars, pedestrians, or the flight path of other birds. The day I began initial research, I wandered through the Crum Woods on a sunny afternoon in search of any relatively abundant species, but recently I’ve spent several afternoons by the bird feeders in Cornell, making a tally mark in my notebook any time my focal bird leaves the area. Compared to the neuroscience papers I’ve read, it’s pretty basic research, and somehow I got that my titmice were significantly less likely to flee given the presentation of a stimulus, but I still feel as though I’m doing something special.

Tufted titmice flying around the bird feeders outside Cornell library.

I might not have a natural science degree (or any degree for that matter), and I might not ever be an M.D. or a Ph.D. But I feel like the work I’ve done this semester has distanced me from the girl discouraged by her performance in lab, who didn’t understand how to write a scientific paper, and who was too afraid to ask for help. And I think this semester has brought me closer to being a Real Scientist, whether or not my titmice data is significant.

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