Exploring Biology in Watershed: An Engineer’s Story

Moving from the dry desert lands to the great lake state of Michigan was a tough choice.  But coming from a very science-oriented high school, it wasn’t difficult for me to see the immense number of undergraduate research opportunities that were available here at Hope. I initially found out about the Watershed program when I sat down with an admissions representative during my first visit in April 2017. I had seen the web-page prior to visiting, but It wasn’t until then that I could envision myself as part of such an immersive program.

In high school, I was on an engineering path. I was also part of the robotics team all four years and it seemed natural for me to consider engineering programs while searching for schools. But in my senior year, I began to question whether engineering was really the career path for me. Since all my classes were based in engineering and physics, I’d never had the opportunity to explore chemistry or biology. Watershed seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to experience chemistry and biology in a unique fashion instead of taking the standard intro labs. I can definitely tell you I have not regretted my decision to this day.

I spent much of my first semester trying to decide what I wanted to study and major in, thinking more about chemistry and biology rather than engineering. For the first time in my life, I was working with live organisms and aseptic techniques instead of large mechanical parts and electric systems. Watershed also gave me the opportunity to apply research methods and techniques to real-world challenges which made the labs even more enjoyable, although stressful at times. But over time, I realized that I missed being able to work with nuts and bolts. I remember passing by the engineering lab one day, watching the engineering students work on vehicle motors, and wishing I was in there with them. As much as I enjoyed my time growing colonies of E. coli, I missed engineering even more.

Although I realized that engineering had been the right path all along, I do have to thank the Day 1 Watershed program for allowing me to be part of such a unique experience. Watershed not only reaffirmed my passion and love for science but also gave me a whole new perspective of what implications our actions have for the natural world. It was a good chance to step back and get a new perspective. Thank you, Watershed, for a life-changing experience.

Expanding Research Horizons

I knew that I wanted to do research over the summer, but  I had to choose between research in Watershed and applying to a new project.  Watershed has been a very valuable experience to me, but I felt that I wanted to try something new.  I also felt that I should find out if I enjoy Biochemistry, since it is my major. Watershed has helped me obtain a level of comfort in the lab, which has prepared me for Chemistry and Biology lab work.  The program focuses on biological and chemical analyses of microbial communities in the Macatawa Watershed. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, I gained experience in several chemical analyses as well as biological/E. coli testing.   This required me to adapt quickly to different ways of thinking and learning.  I knew next to nothing about microbiology, or how to perform all the chemical/biological testing required for Watershed, but I learned.

My adaptability was further tested when I had the opportunity to research for Dr. Leah Chase. Her research focuses primarily on Biochemistry and Neuroscience, something I knew very little about.  Therefore, researching in this lab required some adjustment. At first, I could hardly understand my own lab partner. Additionally, the project was much more microcosmic in scope than the Watershed program. The project myresearch focuses on, system xc, an antiporter composed of two proteins that moves glutamate out of the cell and cysteine into the cell.  The system is particularly abundant in glial cells, which are essential to the function of the central nervous system.  The biochemical pathway we are studying involves the enzyme AKT, which activates a transporter called xCT.  Abnormalities in this transporter’s activity have been connected to stroke, glioma, schizophrenia, drug addiction/withdrawal, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Choosing a project outside of Day1 allowed me to expand my horizons past what Watershed could offer me and helped me discover that I really do love Biochemistry! I’m still thankful to the Watershed program; While I didn’t want to devote my life to it, the program  broadened my view of research and helped me discover my real passion for research. I think it is always a good idea to try new things, and joining the Chase lab has allowed me to find my passion for Biochemistry.

Returning to Watershed

I initially decided to come to Hope due in part to its immensity of undergraduate research opportunities.  My research experience began with my participation in the Day 1 Watershed project during my first year. This bolstered my confidence, and as soon as I realized that it was possible, I had my heart set on continuing to do research the next summer.  

While applying for a position in one of Hope’s labs, I considered a variety of subjects ranging from analytical chemistry to biochemistry. Eventually, I ended up exactly where I started: the Watershed project. I had become so invested in and passionate about the project that I wanted to build on my first year’s work.

This past summer, an extraordinary number of people worked on different aspects of the Watershed project. Most of the researchers focused on microbiology, computer programming, and geology.  As a chemistry major, I focused more on the chemistry aspects of the project, namely analyzing the concentrations of certain chemicals in the water.

No matter whose lab you are in, summer research is an amazing opportunity to extend your intellectual and social experiences. It’s a great way to keep learning, making connections with your professors, and meeting new friends.


From Macatawa To Eleuthera — Opportunities After Watershed

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in college, and so I initially had mixed feelings about applying to participate in the Day 1 Watershed program as a freshman.  Looking back now as a junior, though, all I can say is that the value of my involvement with the Day 1 Watershed program has only appreciated with time.  It has opened the door to many new and exciting opportunitiesincluding one in the Bahamas.  

The Day 1 Watershed program engages participants in experiential learning from their first day on campus and encourages us to continue to grab every experiential learning opportunity we can after the first year.   I participated in Hope’s Island Life May-term at the end of my freshman year. Island Life is an amazing course run by the geology department’s Dr. Bodenbender.  It focuses on the sustainability, diversity and geology of the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, and involves a week-long trip to the island in its third and final week to study these concepts hands-on.  Our group also took some time to sightsee, and to assist local biologists with their day-to-day jobs. I can’t enumerate all of our activities, but highlights included seeing the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea simultaneously, catching a stingray by wading after it and staring it down, and going spelunking down to a bed of ancient African soil.  

The main project I undertook was the writing of a miniature field guide manuscript that detailed biological and geological interactions at the various locales we hiked and snorkled through, with species lists as complete as could be assembled given the limited time.  It was the most ambitious piece of science writing I’ve yet composed, and I am now looking to expand upon that experience.  I recently submitted an excerpt of this field guide to the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Hastings, Michigan, along with a project proposal to write a far more ambitious field guide manuscript based on their species inventory and conservation efforts.  I don’t know what precisely my future holds, but I know that it will be brighter because of the opportunities and experiences that were made available to me because of the Day 1 Watershed program.