Students gain STEM experience as interns in MnDRIVE labs

The Multisensory Perception Lab, part of the Center for Applied and Translational Sensory Science, can study audio-visual perception in a variety of simulated environments.

This summer, five undergraduate students gained valuable laboratory experience while contributing to MnDRIVE-related research at the University of Minnesota.

Two MnDRIVE research areas — Brain Conditions and Environment — partnered with the North Star STEM Alliance to offer the internship opportunity. North Star STEM, part of a network of similar programs funded by the National Science Foundation, provides academic support, undergraduate research and professional development to underrepresented minorities in Minnesota working toward bachelor’s degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields.

While this is the first year MnDRIVE Brain Conditions has partnered with North Star STEM on internship opportunities, MnDRIVE Environment had two summer interns in 2015. North Star STEM director Anne Hornickel said interns who have participated to date have benefited greatly from working with faculty and graduate students on research both in the lab and in the field.

“Opportunities to do research in the MnDRIVE program immerse our North Star STEM Alliance students in cutting-edge science and engineering relevant to Minnesota’s quality of life,” Hornickel said. “This mentoring builds research skills and also guides the students toward their next professional steps after graduation.”

Below, Inquiry asks two of this summer’s interns about their experiences in the program.

Chinwenwa IhemeCI

Internship: MnDRIVE Environment, lab of Satoshi Ishii, Ph.D., assistant professor with the Department of Soil, Water and Climate and the BioTechnology Institute.

Education: Junior at the U of M, interested in medical lab science and biological sciences.

Hometown: Imo State, Nigeria.

What sparked your interest in science?
I have been interested in doing science and lab work since middle school. Where I grew up in Nigeria, the school was science-focused, so that really influenced me in what I wanted to pursue.

What was your role in Satoshi Ishii’s lab?
I worked with anaerobic and aerobic denitrifiers. Denitrification is the reduction of N2O to nitrogen gas. It occurs naturally by bacteria in a place with little or no oxygen, but since our environment has lots of oxygen, we measured the rates at which aerobic denitrifiers reduce N2O in the presence of oxygen. This project came up because N2O gets emitted into the environment and that causes the greenhouse effect and acid rain.

What were your findings with this research?
We found that bacteria reduce N2O in the presence of oxygen slower than in the absence of oxygen. The next step is discussing how to apply these findings in farming.

What was the most challenging part about conducting this research?
The most challenging part was when I was taking an account of the rates at which N2O was reduced to nitrogen gas. I was working with a microsensor, which measures the concentration of a gas. Calibrating it can be very sensitive and how you keep it in storage is very sensitive — mistakes can ruin your data. Getting comfortable with that equipment was more challenging than any other part of the research. It took me about two weeks to be sure that the data I was getting was right.

How did this experience help prepare you for a STEM-related degree and career?
This was my first research experience in a lab. One thing Prof. Ishii challenged me to do was to make decisions on my own, to face challenges independently. That’s one thing I loved about the experience — it makes me much more confident about going into a lab and knowing how to carry out an experiment.

Sandra OseiSO

Internship: MnDRIVE Brain Conditions intern with the lab of Evelyn Davies-Venn, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences.

Education: Sophomore at the U of M, majoring in neuroscience.

Hometown: Woodbury, Minn. Originally born in Ghana, Osei relocated to the U.S. in 2003 and has lived in Minnesota since.

What sparked your interest in science?
I was a curious child. Growing up, I was always interested in science — specifically, animal- and human-related topics in science. I was just so intrigued by findings and discoveries that sparked innovation in new technologies and developments that went to further human life and standard of living. As a child, my parents heavily encouraged me to stick with the sciences, and to further my education in a science field of my choice.

What was your role in Evelyn Davies-Venn’s lab?
I was involved in a project testing a prototype hearing device on participants with hearing loss. This device included hearing aids and a wireless microphone that amplified nearby noise. My day to day activities involved me setting up the sound proof booth for testing. I would have the participant sit inside the booth, place the hearing aids in their ears and then place the microphone in one of three different directions. In each of these three directions I would play recorded speech and a babbling background noise, then ask the participant to relay the speech back to me. This would allow for me to see how well the microphone picked up on the speech despite the babbling noise.

What were your findings with this research?
The findings are still being processed. As of now we can see that the microphone did a very good job in concentrating on the speech from the iPad in the midst of loud and noisy environments. It correlates well with my hypothesis that the microphone would zone in primarily on wherever it was steered toward.

What was the most challenging part about conducting this research?
The most challenging part about this research was consistency between each participant and how you tested them. For example, keeping a consistent volume on the iPad we were using for speech.

How did this experience help prepare you for a STEM-related degree and career?
This experience helped me immensely in familiarizing myself with research in the STEM fields. It taught me about punctuality, about carrying out procedures with participants and about working with others within the same field. I learned that things will not always be perfect or end up the way I want, but I should keep trying and find new ways and routes to take around each roadblock.

Interviews were edited for length and clarity.

MnDRIVE is a landmark partnership between the University and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of University strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to advance new discoveries that address grand challenges.