“I Learned to Think Like a Scientist”*

PRIME 2011, Cybermedia Center, Osaka University, Osaka, Japan

Through the NSF-funded PRIME program, and its innovative learning infrastructure, I have been able to grow and mature significantly in a short period of time. This past summer I traveled to Japan as a "scientific ambassador" representing UCSD. This cultural immersion research program has sent students on international collaborative research projects since 2004. All of my research experiences in the past have helped me diversify my interests, but this international experience helped me connect everything back together in a single interdisciplinary effort. Not only have I learned to think like a scientist through independent study, I understand more of the responsibilities that a scientist must accept. Our job is not only to learn but to educate as well, promoting active learning and awareness of important scientific issues. Through the study abroad education of the PRIME program, I have been able to experience firsthand the impact of a first-rate science education. My summer experiences directly led to many community outreach opportunities involving public presentations and teaching. The PRIME program has helped me realize the qualities of a great scientist. Beyond a well-developed scientific thought process, we have to directly pass on our research passions through teaching. This distinguishing trait is important in science, because not only is the job of a scientist to envision the future, we must also be able to share this future with society.

Throughout my educational career, I actively sought to provide myself with a great foundation in research in order to pursue a career in translational research. My PRIME research experience in Japan gave me the rare opportunity to be involved in a discipline that most non-engineering science majors are not exposed to and it helped me recognize the significant educational gap that biology students have had to accept. Because we are not consistently exposed to important emerging aspects of science such as bioinformatics, we are unable to think in more potentially transformative ways. Therefore, our development in interdisciplinary research is severely hindered. Through PRIME, I was introduced to new ways of teaching that led me to experience the impact that experiential educational can have on individuals. This experience catalyzed a shift in my understanding of scientific contribution. The job of a scientist is to envision the future through transformative research, but we must also be able to share this future with society through educational awareness.

PRIME promotes both independent research and educational awareness. As a scientific ambassador from UCSD, I travelled to Japan to take part in an international collaborative research project. There, I worked on a virtual drug screening project that utilized supercomputer systems from Osaka University and several other sites from around the world (PRAGMA-grid). I also worked to design a streamlined work flow for modeling non-crystallized protein structures and applied it to current receptor-ligand screening studies. Even with a strong background in molecular biology from my studies, this was a daunting project because I had to learn Linux as well as the basics of Perl and Python in less than 10 weeks in order to navigate the sea of code that this project was based upon. In spite of this, I accepted this challenge and through our hard work, my team managed to expand the applications of this high-throughput protein modeling method to easily generate accurate models for many types of in silico studies.

This unique experience not only increased my research capacities, but also taught me the importance of communicating my findings and making them accessible to facilitate learning.

Throughout my project, I encountered difficulties translating my biology knowledge into computer science. Although I worked in a computer science lab, the graduate students did not have the biology background to advise me on my project. This initial barrier in knowledge between us was resolved through our mutual interest in each other's projects. Through a collaborative process, I was able to develop and implement the parallel computing algorithms while the other students were able to learn about innovative applications of their legacy software in the biological sciences. All of my research experiences in the past helped me diversify my interests, but this international experience helped me tie everything back together in an interdisciplinary effort. Science is a global endeavor and the graduate students in Japan made me recognize a common ground among scientists: the desire to learn and share knowledge with one another. Not only have I learned to think like a scientist, I understood more about the responsibilities that a scientist must hold.

My summer experience directly led to many community outreach opportunities. I had the opportunity to speak about the educational impact of the PRIME program for the Dean's Leadership Council (DLC), which consisted of the Dean of Biological Sciences at UCSD and many other influential members of the community, and the Experiential Learning Conference at UCSD. Moreover, my summer interactions with international students inspired me to work with international students as a conversational English tutor. International students studying in western institutions are hampered mainly by the language barrier; however, proper guidance would help them adjust culturally and discover programs of interest beyond the classroom to enrich their learning experience. As a PRIME alumnus, I am excited to be a mentor and teacher for international students. I hope to share my experiences and guide them along the same path I took in hopes that they will discover their own passions through these interactions.

Academically, I served as a Molecular Biology Teaching Assistant this year. Becoming a teaching assistant enhanced my desire to work with students from diverse backgrounds. In the discussion sections I lead, the students' active involvement, laughter, and curiosity for the information I present gives me total satisfaction. The greatest pleasure I had so far was during my office hours when a student yelled "WOW!" in the middle of the library after I had explained to her the applications of PCR. A wave of nostalgia struck me because I remember experiencing the same feeling of grasping a perplexing concept in the past. Being able to impart my understanding of science to students motivates me to continue teaching.

As a scientist, mentor, and student, I learned to unite the important virtues from each role. Not only have I been introduced to a whole new perspective to view the science I am passionate for, I understand how important it is for every ambitious student to experience what I have felt. Through true independent research with very minimal guidance in each stage, I have fallen in love with science and its rigor all over again. From the opportunity to participate in the NSF PRIME program and its innovative learning infrastructure, I was able to grow and mature as a scientist in a short period of time. I hope to spread my fervor through increasing educational initiatives that will support and promote the growth of students because a prominent academic experience not only facilitates great discoveries, but also prepares brilliant students for a promising future in the scientific community.

* Excerpt from PRIME'd for the Global Workforce: A Student's Perspective on the Impact of the PRIME International STEM Education Program in “Education in Action,” pp. 281 - 287