Breaking down my summer: Reflections from an undergraduate researcher

Each summer the KBS LTER supports students to participate in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the NSF. Jon Hileman is a student at Eureka College in Illinois. He wrote about his REU project working with his mentor Dr. Maren Friesen at MSU.~~~~~~~~~~

Never did I ever think that this summer I would attend a meeting that consisted of talking about rhizobia and ice cream cake. Where did this happen? At Michigan State University in the Friesen lab in East Lansing! If you are reading this, you might already be a little confused, as this blog is posted on the Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) website. The KBS LTER is in Hickory Corners, MI. But don’t worry friend, this is all part of the same program.

Student working under hood

KBS LTER REU Jon Hileman busy at work in the Friesen Lab at MSU.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work at KBS while living in Lansing and working on MSU’s main campus as a KBS LTER Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) student. This was a great opportunity for me, as I had never lived in a town with more than 5,000 people until this summer! Day one was an experience for me. In addition to navigating a campus that is the size of my home town, I also encountered other various things that I had never seen before, such as the “Michigan left”. But after I got to the lab, I found a helpful environment that made sure that I didn’t get confused ever again. I was worried that I would be looked down upon this summer, as I really wasn’t sure if I felt prepared for this internship or not. It was daunting walking into a lab with so many brilliant people. But in addition to being smart, they were also very kind and were willing to work with my skill level, and pretty soon, I felt confident about my project, or rather, all three projects that I ended up taking on.

The project that I decided to present for my REU was centered around the topics of biological nitrogen fixation and exoenzymes. Biological nitrogen fixation is a process in which a group of bacteria, called diazotrophs, takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and converts it into ammonia, which can be used by a wide array of organisms. Exoenzymes are produced by many types of soil bacteria. Their purpose is to break down large compounds that cannot pass through the cellular membrane into smaller compounds that can pass through the cell membrane. My mentors had come up with a hypothesis that describes a cycle in which bacteria access these large compounds for a source of nitrogen. Our goal was to see if fertilizer used for crops affects the ability of these bacteria to produce exoenzymes, and if it is affected, where the nitrogen to make the enzymes comes from. This at first was a daunting experiment. I didn’t know the first thing about soil and didn’t know that much detail about enzymes. But soon, I started understanding my project more and got more excited to see results. When it finally came to test for enzyme production, I was extremely excited. The most exciting part of this? Even though I am officially done with my REU, my mentor and I will continue to collaborate on this and my other two projects! Even though my data analysis is currently far from complete, I have the chance to keep working on my project.

Thanks to this REU experience, I have a better understanding not only of the subject material I researched, but I also understand how real research works and have figured out exactly what my post-undergraduate plans are. This was a great experience for me, and if you are reading this and think you don’t have what it takes to apply, think again. You don’t know until you try and the KBS LTER REU is not a program that you want to miss out on simply because you did not apply. And besides, why on earth wouldn’t you want to work somewhere were meetings contain delicious food and interesting science? Lansing and Hickory Corners, Michigan are probably not the first two places you would think of when thinking of your dream summer, but boy did it exceed my expectations. This has truly been a great summer.