All posts by Britt Carlson

PRECS Summer Research “Invaluable” to Students

Ten science-focused students from community colleges across Illinois and two other states came to Champaign recently to participate in the inaugural summer of PRECS (Phenotypic Plasticity Research Experience for Community College Students), a research experience for undergraduates program (REU) funded by the National Science Foundation. PRECS provides community college students with authentic research experiences in the area of phenotypic plasticity, the phenomenon in which a single genotype produces multiple phenotypes depending on environment.

Our summer program started with a two-week boot camp at Parkland College on May 24. The boot camp prepared participants for the eight-week research immersion portion of the program, where students became integrated into research laboratories at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The immersion portion ran through July 26.

PRECS is different from the NSF’s other REU programs in two ways. First, although most programs include research immersion experience, it is less common to have a boot camp. Second, many REU programs are designed for undergraduates in their junior and senior years, while PRECS is specially designed to meet the needs of community college students, who may not have had any research experience and relatively few college-level science courses. In fact, as far as we can tell, PRECS is the first NSF REU in the field of biology to be open exclusively to community college students and to have a community college faculty member as one of the creators and administrators of the program.

As our program wraps up, two PRECS participants,  Elliot Ping and Aaron West, share a bit about their experiences and what they are taking away from this excellent summer opportunity (below).

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“PRECS provided a platform for growth and learning, both academically and professionally, while also providing a candid look at what it’s like to be a part of a research lab. The program has been a whirlwind of learning opportunities (including the mistakes and frustrations that often come paired with them) from start to finish. These experiences, from the outright failures to the great successes, are all good preparation for what it means to be a person in research.

An average workday for me was 9 am to 5 pm, sometimes earlier or later depending on what we were doing. If we could only get a timeslot on the confocal microscope at 8 am or at 6 pm, for example, then the day would be adjusted differently. The specific project I was working on involved a lot of downtime between steps while things ran their course, so I had the opportunity to learn other skills (like R programming and other software skills), read papers, and shadow other members of the lab.

My favorite moment was when we finally got our antibodies to work. We were at the confocal microscope doing a continuous scan to get a look at the brain tissue, and we found real colocalized staining on the sample. It felt good to see my efforts come together and to get good images of something, especially after something like two weeks of repeated failure.

This summer, I have gained more perspective about science as an institution than I gathered through the entire course of my associate’s degree. Research is not the simple, straightforward thing many people think it to be. It is failing and trying again, or trying something else, until you get it right, and, like with most other things worth doing, it takes practice, patience, and outright stubbornness to gain the skills necessary to make success a possibility.

I will hold close to my heart for a very long time the relationships I have built and the education I have received, both formal and informal, from working and studying in the PRECS program. The opportunity to work, learn, and present, especially when coupled with the guidance of so many knowledgeable, experienced people, has been, and will likely continue to prove itself to be, utterly invaluable to my development as a student and as a professional-in-the-making in the sciences. I am so grateful to Parkland College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for working to make this opportunity for community college students possible. It has been a privilege to be involved with PRECS, and I would encourage any community college student who thinks research may be for them to look into this or other opportunities as something that can both broaden their horizons for the future and deepen their understanding and appreciation of the things they are learning in the classroom.”   — Elliot Ping

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“I am honored to have been picked to participate in PRECS (Phenotypic Plasticity Research Experience for Community College Students). Coming from a community college located in the south suburbs of Chicago, I only had a vague sense of what being in a lab entailed. What PRECS would go on to teach me this summer is the community a lab has. Every lab is different, specializing in different fields, participating in different research.

PRECS has been a great program to participate in over the past 10 weeks. It has prepared a mindset geared toward graduate school. PRECS has exposed me to real-world scientific practices, and stresses. PRECS gave me a true experience, exposing me to what my life would be like after graduating with my bachelor’s degree. I feel more prepared moving forward with my education. Whether I go on to continue scientific research or not is not foreseen, but I know that it is a viable option.” — Aaron West

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For more information about PRECS, visit precs.igb.illinois.edu.

[C. Britt Carlson, PhD, is an associate professor of chemistry in the  Natural Sciences department at Parkland College.]

PRECS: A new opportunity for community college students

How does the environment affect plant and animal development? An exciting new research opportunity for community college students coming to Parkland College this summer will give students a look at some of the answers.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-12-27-14-pmCalled PRECS, or Phenotypic Plasticity Research Experience for Community College Students, the program is designed to provide community college students with authentic research experiences in the area of phenotypic plasticity, the phenomenon of a single genotype producing multiple phenotypes depending on environment.

Parkland’s Dr. C. Britt Carlson and Dr. Nathan Schroeder of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the program’s creators, recently announced that PRECS will be up and running May 24 to July 26, 2017. PRECS was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Overview

The 10 community college students who will be chosen to participate in PRECS will be paired with research mentors at the University of Illinois, working on such projects as:

  • the interaction between genotype and ozone pollution on maize growth
  • the effect of environmental stress on neuroanatomy
  • the interactions of genes and environment on fish behavior

1) Boot Camp
To tailor to community college students, who may not have had any research experience and relatively few college-level science courses, PRECS starts with a 2-week “boot-camp” to prepare students to conduct research at the University of Illinois.

2) Research Immersion
After this preparation, students enter an 8-week research immersion program at the University of Illinois.

3) Presentations
Students will then present their research at their home community college as well as at an undergraduate research symposium on the University of Illinois campus.

Program Benefits

Participation in a program like PRECS is a great way for students to gain experience, create new contacts, explore future careers, and build their resumes:

  • Throughout the program, student participants will gain hands-on experience, learning while they explore the world of research science. PRECS provides students with the background needed to be successful in a research laboratory and an opportunity to use those skills doing real science at the University of Illinois.
  • Participants will work closely with UIUC researchers and other community college science students, creating a network within their professional field.
  • Participation in this program will be a great resume-builder, as students will be able to show future academic institutions and employers evidence of their expertise in the sciences and their ability to take initiative, work independently, and work collaboratively.

PRECS also provides students with a $5,500 stipend for participation in the program. Housing, food, and travel (if needed) allowances are also available.

Eligibility

Students interested in participating in PRECS must be attending a community college, be a US citizen or permanent resident, and have completed General Biology I (General Chemistry I is also preferred). PRECS encourages applications from students from underrepresented groups.

Applications for summer 2017 are due March 15. For more information on PRECS, please visit precs.igb.illinois.edu.

[Dr. C. Britt Carlson is an associate professor in chemistry at Parkland College.]

Taking UIUC Nano Research to Parkland Science

I closed out our fall semester pleased with how an opportunity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had shaped my Parkland College chemistry instruction for the better.

This past summer, I participated in the UIUC’s nano@illinois RET, a six-week professional development and research experience for teachers. The 12 participant-teachers had diverse experience and backgrounds, including middle school to community college math and science teachers, teachers from different states, and experienced and novice teachers. These differences made for a really interesting group of participants, and we ended up learning a great deal from each other.

Our group photo (from the nanoRET website).
Our group photo (from the nanoRET website).

We spent Mondays and Tuesdays in professional development sessions, learning about cutting-edge nanotechnology research, touring laboratories and facilities at UIUC, and discussing ways to translate nanotechnology research into the classroom environment. We spent the rest of our week on our individual research projects. The participant-teachers were assigned to a laboratory, a faculty mentor, and a research mentor, typically a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow.

Research projects included studying transmembrane proteins using nanodisc lipoprotein complexes, creating thin films with specific properties, manipulating graphene, and other topics. My project, conducted in Prof. Lynford Goddard’s Photonics Systems Laboratory, involved using light to etch a specific pattern into the surface of a silicon chip.

chipSilicon chips are important parts of modern computers. They are semiconductors and form the basis of integrated circuits. To create the circuits, specific patterns must be etched into the surface of the Si. The normal procedure for etching silicon to create these circuits with the correct design involves many steps and is time- and material-intensive, so if this project were successful, it could provide scientists with a faster and more straightforward process. This process also would be cheaper to conduct and chips could get to market faster. In the end, we were pleased that we were able to get the process to work. All in all, it was a successful summer.

I gained a lot by participating in this program. Before the summer, I had only limited experience with nanotechnology and even less experience with electrical engineering. I gained a lot of knowledge about the interface between chemistry and these other fields. This is something that I have brought into my classes already. For example, I now include discussion of the molecular differences between conductors, semiconductors, and insulators into my General Chemistry I (CHE 101) lecture.

I also made some great connections beyond Parkland. I learned a lot more about the UIUC and made many personal contacts. I also met and learned a great deal from some terrific STEM teachers from the local area and beyond.