Sophomore Year, Second (And Third) Project

Participating in Research Rookies freshman year has gotten me hooked. Now, I can’t get enough of research.  I have always loved learning about various topics and in multiple ways, so I guess it’s no real surprise that I love research. As the title of this post implies, I am working on some new projects this year! One of which I am doing through the Research Rookies program, and the other I am doing due to the inspiration and help that the Research Rookies program and its team provided.

As I said, I like to learn about many topics in different ways. So, for this year, I decided to get into a more typical lab setting. But, since I apparently don’t do anything by the book, I decided to get involved in a lab in the Psychology Department. Yes, I am a Biology major working in a Psychology lab. However, there is some method to the madness. I want to learn about as many aspects of animal research as possible, and the lab I am working  in now works with rats! Oh they  are so cute! They really are a lot of fun, and I’ve already learned a ton this year. In these first few months, I have run some trials with the rats all by myself,  I have gathered and analyzed data, made graphs from the data, made a poster for a presentation, assisted with minor surgeries, created microscope slides from tissue, analyzed the tissue samples, learn about histology, and much more! I am so excited to be working in this lab, because the amount of things I can  learn seems endless! If I  have learned this much in a few months,  just imagine what I will learn throughout the rest of the year! The lab also lets me be very involved, and helps me every step of the way. I am a part of a team, and I might even be running my own study next semester! Overall, I’ve already had an amazing experience, and I am looking forward to what it yet to come!

The office that runs the Research Rookies program also oversees a program called USOAR – Undergraduate Special Opportunities in Artistry and Research. Essentially, this is a grant program that will allocate a student up to $2,500 for a project!

Once again, I came up with a crazy idea. Long story short, I found the only primate rehabilitation center in Argentina was looking for volunteers, and decided that I would like to work with monkeys and improve my Spanish. So, I applied to volunteer in Argentina for six weeks over this coming summer. Because it is just a volunteer trip, I have to fund the trip myself. This is where I was able to incorporate USOAR, and make my goal of volunteering in Argentina more of a reality. I once again addressed a professor, (this time from Anthropology) to see if she would be willing to be my faculty support for my Argentina research. She too, was a little skeptical at first, but was incredibly helpful from the start. I came up with the  idea to analyze facial expressions in the monkeys, and compare them to the already documented expressions of other types of monkeys and apes. Now that I had the support of a faculty member and a research idea, I was able to submit a proposal for a USOAR grant. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’ll keep you all updated as I find out more.

All of these incredible experiences that I have had this year are all in part because of the Research Rookies program. It helped give me the confidence to approach professors and pursue my crazy ideas. No we’ll just have to wait and see what happens! 🙂

Thanks for reading!


Research Rookies – The Inaugural Year

People say college is a time to be on your own, grow up, get out of the house, and find yourself. So, when I told people I was planning on staying at home for college, I sometimes noticed signs of their disapproval. A few concerned family-friends even addressed my parents saying how important it was for kids to go away for college, trying to convince them to essentially send me away.
However, what those people didn’t realize is that I had already found myself. I knew what I wanted, and I knew that I could be successful at the university that was pretty much located in my own backyard.
Another argument people gave me was that I needed to go to a top-notch school with a veterinary program if I wanted to get into vet school, but I knew I could make NIU work for me. And that is exactly what I did. I found out about research opportunities from family friends that work at the university, which led me to discover this brand new program, Research Rookies. As an incoming Freshman, I knew I wanted to get involved, and I thought this would be a great way to do that. Not only would I meet students with similar interests, I would get to work with faculty, and even gain valuable research experience for veterinary school as early as my freshman year.
Once I had been accepted into the Research Rookies program, I had to pick a project to work on, and I naively decided I wanted to tackle my own project.  A month prior to starting college, I became certified in canine and equine massage therapy. Having just acquired this new skill, I wanted to put it to the test, so I set out to try and  find quantitative evidence that equine massage benefits horses by increasing their stride length and/or their front-leg flexion.
Even though  I would not recommend that most Freshman undertake their own research project, I had a tremendous experience. I worked extremely hard,  learned so much from three amazing  professors, and even had  a bit of fun along the way. I had access to world-class Olympic-quality software that I used for my crazy project! I received support from all three of the professors I asked to assist me.  They went above and beyond for me, and I never would have accomplished the project without their guidance. Did I mention that one of the professors even came out to the horse barn with me to set up the markers for my data collection? Well, she did. She came out one morning and spent at least two hours with the horses and me!
Not only did I have a great time while working on the project, but the whole experience opened many doors for me, and provided me with even more opportunities. An article was written about my project for the NIU website, for which they came out to the barn and even got some video footage of the horses. I also quickly became known as “the horse girl” throughout campus, which was rather entertaining. Then, I was asked to speak at Academic Convocation about my Research Rookies experience. (Academic Convocation is the welcoming ceremony for all of NIU’s incoming freshman.) I worked on a speech and a visual presentation for the Academic Convocation  for about five months, and it totally paid off in the end when I spoke to about 4,000 people without faltering, and with confidence. There have been a few other outcomes of my first year as a Research Rookie, including that more pictures were taken of my horses and me. One of these pictures, in particular, was then used as the cover of the alumni magazine, Northern Now.
But enough about me. The point is that because of the Research Rookies program, I had an amazing first year of college. I learned so much, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Back to the Beginning

Before I tell you about my Research Rookies experience of last year and of this year, I’d like to give you all a little more information about why I am doing what I am doing… So here it goes!
I have wanted a horse all of my life. Seriously, from the time I was about three or four, I had figured out a way to have my horse live in my backyard and in my bedroom. (I was going to convert my closet into a stall.) A few years later, the whole wall and ceiling of my half of the room that my sister and I shared was covered in horse posters. Add to that a set of horse sheets, a “few” stuffed animals, and some riding gear that at the time I had no use for, and you’ve got 9-year old me.
Shortly before my 11th birthday, I started taking horseback riding lessons at Plumcreek Stables. It was just once a week, so when my mom naively said, “Remember Sarah, you’re not getting your own horse,” I actually believed her. To her dismay and my surprise, I did at age 13, get my first horse, Max. Gosh I adored that horse. He was such a great horse. I was even teaching him tricks for a while! Ever seen a horse do the “Hokey-Pokey”? Well, apparently you never met Max. He never learned the whole thing, but you’ll find out why in a minute.
After having Max for about two years, we suddenly found out his kidneys were failing. He was dying, and there was nothing that could be done to help him. We took him up to the clinic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only to have them confirm that his condition was very rare, but also fatal. I had to make the decision to put my best friend down that day, and my life hasn’t been the same since.
Of course, I still miss my horse a ton. He meant the world to me, and without him, I wouldn’t be the rider or the person that I am today. I am convinced of that. However, he changed my life in more than just that way. He actually gave my life a focus, and a purpose that I am pursuing to this very day. While we were at the clinic in Madison with Max, I had to help run the tests and get samples of urine, etc. from Max, because I was the only one who could come near him. (By that point he was in a lot of pain and was defensive about anyone touching him, except for me.) As I was doing this, I realized how much I loved helping my horse, and learning about the tests, and participating in the process. I also noticed, as the head veterinarian asked me questions, that there had been subtle signs of Max’s condition all along. We could not have prevented his condition, but we could have at least made him more comfortable had we noticed the signs. As I said, I had to make the decision to put my horse down that day, and it was an awful day. I’ll never forget how he whinnied after me as I left him after saying my final goodbye.
Alright, enough of the sad story. The point of the matter is that I learned how much I liked veterinary medicine that day. And I decided then that if there was any way that I could maybe prevent another 16-year old from having to go through what I had just gone through, then that was what I wanted to do.
I am currently a sophomore at Northern Illinois University, studying Biology, and hoping to go to veterinary school.  THIS is how Max continues to affect my life. Not in his absence, but in the motivation he provides me. And this is why I decided to become a Research Rookie my freshman year of college.