Dr. Earley’s research lab is not just focused on research; it is also a community. The faces behind the work that we do are just as important as the research itself. Every month I will be doing a “Student Feature” on The Little Fish with a Lot to Offer that will allow you to get a glimpse into the lives of the people that make this lab possible. With that being said, this week I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the lab’s graduate student researchers and my mentor, Grace Scarsella, and ask her a few questions about the work that she does and what initially drew her to research.
Grace, what initially sparked your interest in research?
Actually, it was SCUBA diving. Both of my parents are avid divers and when I was younger we would always go on vacation to places where we could dive. As a result, I got certified early on. I love how there is an entirely different world beneath the water; it is honestly amazing. Growing up I thought that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. I later realized that, while I found the medical profession very interesting, I did want to spend all of my time stuck in a hospital. So instead I decided to pursue an education that held at its core the things I have always loved: biology, marine sciences and the organisms I had discovered while diving.
What type of research are you currently involved in and how long have you been involved in research?
I have been involved in research since my sophomore year as an undergraduate. Now a Master’s student, this will be my fifth year involved in research. Currently, I am studying how energy budgets might drive sex change in the mangrove rivulus fish, a really interesting little fish (Check out our blog post for more info!)
That sounds really interesting. For those of us who are unfamiliar with research terminology, would you mind explaining what you mean by energy budgets?
Of course! When I say I am studying energy budgets I mean that I am trying to figure out how this fish distributes the energy that it gets from food. I am really focusing on the energy needed for these fish to reproduce as well as the energy it takes to change sex! I am investigating whether it is beneficial, from an energetic standpoint, to change sex or stay hermaphrodite. Does the fish conserve energy or use it during that process? In the lab, we can quantify the fishes’ metabolic rates to measure the amount of energy they are using at a specific time.
That’s really interesting stuff. Is research your long-term goal career goal or a stepping-stone?
Well, it is definitely much more than just a stepping-stone. I would say it lays the foundation for what I hope to accomplish after I finish graduate school. My goal is to some day run a non-profit or educational program that communicates science to everyone, including children and non-scientists. The research I have been conducting has given me a solid background in designing, executing and documenting experiments, which has helped me gain a deep understanding of the research process. I think that, in order to talk about something simplistically, you need to have a really thorough understanding of the material. My background in research has helped me develop these skills. It gives me an edge that most other educators lack by allowing me to communicate complex concepts in science in a much more engaging way. I think it would be very rewarding to work for advocacy groups or for the government in order to pass conservation laws. This would also require a really solid understanding of the scientific material in order to effectively communicate it to those people responsible for making the changes.
What is the most challenging aspect of research for you?
For me, it’s maintaining a balance between work and the rest of life. I have a tendency to really throw myself into my work and I overdo it sometimes. It can be easy to forget the importance of paying attention to other aspects of my life. I am very passionate about what I am studying but I know that burn-out can happen to best of us. Balance is definitely very important. The longer I’ve been in grad school the better I’ve gotten with maintaining a balanced life. It’s good to recognize that taking a day off is okay and good for maintaining sanity!
I definitely think you are right! Personal time is important. On that note, what do you enjoy doing with your time outside of the lab?
I love to read, and also love to be on the water: kayaking, paddle boarding, you name it. I am very outdoorsy so I spend a good bit of my free time outside. When I have the time, and funds, I like to travel and experience new places. Oh, and of course, I love spending time with my two cats, Luciano and Gumbo!
What do you enjoy the most about research?
I really love the problem solving and critical thinking that it requires. My favorite part of the whole process is designing experiments. Research is like a huge puzzle and the scientist’s job is to put all the pieces together in order to solve it. It is incredibly engaging.
Do you have any suggestions for anyone who might be thinking about getting involved with research?
I would say that if you think that research might be something that you would be interested in, try it out! It is a very fulfilling, although at times trying, career. Graduate school in research fields requires long hours, and a lot of patience. Often times, experiments do not go as planned, or the results aren’t useful. You really need to embrace the motto “try, try, and try again!” Becoming a scientist is a long process that requires many years of schooling and working your way up the academic ladder. When starting out, it’s common to be more of a ‘helper’ than an independent researcher. Don’t give up though- all of that training will be useful in the future when you’re running your own lab!
If you are currently in school, or live near a university, talk to some people in your community that have been involved in research and learn about their experiences. See what they liked and disliked. Universities are probably the best resource to tap into. More often than not, researchers are looking for volunteer help in the lab and willing to talk and offer advice to get you started!