Native Alaskan Students Gain Real-World Research Experience

Family comes first for Karen Carlson, but the senior biology major from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, was able to take advantage of a rich opportunity without leaving behind her son and mother when she took part in the ten-week Alaska Oregon Research Training Alliance (AORTA) at the University of Oregon. Carlson’s participation in the program was funded by the Office for Research, Innovation, and Graduate Education and the Office of the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion. All told, four Alaska students participated in the inaugural summer outreach and training program, which is part of the UO’s new Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals (META) Center for Systems Biology and the Summer Programs in Undergraduate Research (SPUR). Here’s what Carlson had to say about the experience.

How did you find out about AORTA?

I’m a member of ANSEP (Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program) at UA, and my advisor suggested that I take advantage of this opportunity to gain some real-world research experience here at the University of Oregon as part of this program.

How does this summer research experience support your degree program at the University of Alaska?

I’ll earn my bachelor of science in biology in 2014. I’m enrolled in the honors college at UA, and while I’ve been able to gain some laboratory experience, this was the first time I have been able to develop and conduct my own original research project. I plan to continue my education and pursue a graduate degree, so this kind of experience is really valuable.

How did you first get interested in science?

Mr. Parker, my high school biology teacher in my sophomore year, was really important to me. He treated the class like a college course, and I got interested!

What has been the most valuable part of this experience at the UO?

Definitely the hands-on research experience. It involved formulating research questions, coming up with ideas, and developing and structuring a project that was both feasible and realistic.

What surprised you?

The ten weeks by went really fast! And light sheet microscopy—that was really cool!

What made it possible for your mother and son to accompany you?

Peter O’Day, director of META center diversity activities, really encouraged me to come and he wanted me to be successful. Success, for me, meant that I needed to find a way to focus on my research and not worry about [my son] Gabriel. My mom, Gabriel, and I were able to stay in an apartment in a dorm, so I was able to fully participate in the program, knowing that my mom was looking after Gabriel. Everyone’s really understanding here. They understood that family comes first. I’ve really enjoyed working with them this summer.

What's next?

We’re heading up to Seattle and then home. Classes start at the University of Alaska late in August, so I’ll be back in the lab again soon!