In summer 2019, we hosted Noah Bartfield as our NSF-REU* Intern on the Scripps Florida campus. For ten weeks, Noah worked side-by-side with Tesia Stephenson, a postdoc, and Tim O'Leary, a research associate, on a glycoscience-related project. Noah describes his summer in this blog post below.
* National Science Foundation-Research Experience for Undergraduates
MY SUMMER AT SCRIPPS RESEARCH
by Noah Bartfield (Florida State University)
August 14th, 2019
To be honest, I had never heard about Scripps Research up until early December, when I received a recommendation from one of my university’s faculty members to fill an empty spot at Scripps’ diversity and empowerment initiative, the DiVERGE program. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, my background is the exact opposite of the target demographic, but I figured the only reason I was invited was because the program urgently needed to fill their roster. So, I accepted the invitation, intending to use my time at DiVERGE to expand my intersectional toolbox and possibly learn about some science along the way.
Among the many events I attended, the one that stood out the most was an informal faculty-student lunch session where I first met Prof. Mia Huang. Sitting next to Dima and Jeisac, I’m sure she thought I was just as out of place at DiVERGE as I thought I was, but she nonetheless made a conscious effort to include me in an enlightening conversation about science, her career trajectory, and - of course - some of her current work.
The overall conversation was captivating, but what piqued my interest in Mia was an honest confession: she was a pre-med, took the MCAT, and ultimately decided against attending medical school. Up until this point, my largest source of apprehension toward totally investing myself in scientific research was stress stemming from a semisolid, decade-long devotion to pursuing a career in medicine. A significant wave of clarity washed over me when I learned about her truth, as this was the first of a couple major dominoes to fall in my discovery of my own disinterest in attending medical school myself. At this moment, I felt that Mia and I had a true connection; she struck me as a relatable figure from whom I could derive serious, long-term wisdom should I continue to be involved with Scripps.
Scruffy Noah after days and nights working in the lab figuring out an analytical problem.
If I didn’t already give it away, meeting Mia was pivotal in convincing me that Scripps Research had serious potential to be my future home, so immediately after the program ended, I applied for a position as a SURF/REU intern. After a few tense weeks, I was delighted to read my acceptance email and request Mia as my top-choice research mentor.
As is customary, I reached out to Mia before the internship began and informed her that anything was game when it came to placing me on a project. I was eager to learn and was just glad to be there, and, well, she delivered a juggernaut of a learning experience. I was tasked with developing various glycosaminoglycan biosynthesis primers and analyzing their sulfation patterns on resultant heparan sulfate biopolymers. In my eyes, this was a true tip-to-tail chemical biology study, heavily reliant on chemical synthesis, cell culture techniques, analytical chemistry, and data analysis – things I had next to no practical experience with beyond a fundamental understanding of assorted SN2 and protection reactions. Like, I didn’t even know that chemical reactions needed to be purified. I had a suspicion Mia knew this, though, and I was assured my mentors Tim and Tesia would be more than capable of integrating me into their workflow and teaching me how to advance the project independently.
I spent my first six weeks on the project creating the small compounds, doing my best to overcome the maddeningly steep learning curve so famously native to organic chemistry. I was the antithesis of a natural, and it scared the hell out of me. Some point shortly after my fourth week in the lab, I decided that from then on, instead of wholly relying from help from my mentors, I would use my own observational capacity and problem-solving potential to avoid mistakes. This mindset shift completely revolutionized my development, as I entered a period of exponential growth. I began going into the lab earlier and leaving later so that I could push myself to be the master of my own work and take command of not only my personal development, but the entirety of the project. By all means, my anime protagonist-like behavior may or may not have been inspired by a recently-developed late-night ritual of intensely binge-watching Naruto Shippuden, Attack on Titan, and My Hero Academia.
In a flash, I finished synthesizing compounds and incubated them in cell culture, allowing me to transition to working with Tim on analytics. Working with Tim was fantastic, as he gave me space to troubleshoot and develop my analytical reasoning. After an extremely rigorous three and a half weeks of nearly round-the-clock work, we obtained a decent wealth of preliminary data, and it actually looked… pretty good. I was proud of myself, as after ten weeks of using well over a dozen recently-learned skills to produce scientifically valuable data, I had completed one of the most difficult challenges of my life. To complete my picturesque summer, I competed against other interns in the program in a poster presentation competition and ended up winning an all-expenses paid trip to a conference of my choosing. In thanking everybody before jetting off to relieve myself of burnout, I made sure to include a “see you soon” in my final regard because I sincerely hope this is not my final point of interaction with these fantastic people.
I’m glad I took up the offer to join the DiVERGE program, because if I didn’t, I would have missed out on one of the most formative scientific experiences an undergraduate can have. Mia, Tesia, Tim and the rest of the lab were invaluable sculptors of this experience, and I am grateful to have been able to be a part of a group that, in addition to being able to enjoy lunch activities, field trips, and many other lab outings, was able to show me how it feels to have an intense dedication to one’s craft. When describing the institute, former Scripps postdoctoral fellow and current Florida State assistant professor Dr. Joel Smith once said that “there’s no place like it.” Following this spectacular experience, I wholeheartedly agree and am so grateful to have grown as a scientist under such one-of-a-kind tutelage. As I enter my first preparations for graduate school scouting, I can safely say that Scripps is at the top of my list of places to consider for graduate school – and the Huang Lab and the SURF program are all to thank.
Noah and his mom moments after winning the poster competition!