Emma Kocik in research labThis week we are featuring Emma Kocik, who is currently pursuing her B.S. in Chemistry with a minor in Environmental Science. This summer, she worked as a laboratory assistant at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project! She talked with us about her experiences in the lab and how it gave her insight into her career goals. 

Q&A with Emma:

Schmid College: Tell us about your work experience this summer! 

Emma Kocik: Over the summer, I worked as a Laboratory Assistant in the Biogeochemistry Department at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP), in Costa Mesa. I was hired to jump in and help wherever hands were needed on a wide variety of different research projects, which was an exciting way to learn a ton quickly. Some days I found myself imaging the dissolution due to ocean acidification on pteropods (very tiny sea slugs!) using scanning electron microscopy. On other days, I helped run an ongoing experiment exposing juvenile crabs to differing pH and dissolved oxygen levels, which involved feeding, cleaning tanks, preserving specimens, and taking water quality measurements. These days, even when it was 100 degrees out, I’d have to come bundled up because the room and tanks had to be super cold for the crabs to survive! I also bounced around doing lots of other lab tasks like cleaning bottles, searching the literature, and constructing materials for fieldwork.

SC: Tell me about how you are continuing to work with this laboratory into the school year! 

EK: I was hired as a seasonal employee for SCCWRP, which gave me the opportunity to continue working into the year if I thought it was a good fit for my interests. Sure enough, it was! Although I wasn’t expecting to add more to my plate this year, SCCWRP has been very accommodating with my schedule as a student.

preserved crabs

Preserved crabs Emma is studying.

SC: Did COVID-19 impact your work at all? 

EK: I actually was not planning on working with SCCWRP until the summer had already begun, and COVID-19 was in full swing. During the Spring, I had applied to dozens of REU’s and other internships but found myself disappointed amidst a ton of rejections and cancellations due to COVID-19. However, in June, some limited laboratory experiments were being opened back up at SCCWRP. They needed some on-site hands to help out. So, in a way, COVID-19 actually helped in opening up the opportunity.

SC: How did Schmid prepare you for this experience? 

EK: Schmid prepared me for a lot of the skills I needed in a real-world lab, which were surprisingly less academic than I anticipated. I learned that it was a lot less about the specific knowledge you had, as everyone had to be trained to use the instruments or do the skill anyhow. Instead, qualities such as being a quick learner, thinking analytically, and working meticulously were all valued and have all been driven by my Schmid classes, research, and extracurriculars. 

SC: What did you learn from this experience? 

EK: I learned to be more open. Everything about this experience was a surprise, from obtaining the position to getting thrown into helping with a ton of projects. I learned to be quick on my feet and okay with doing things that were different. Working with many different scientists and research topics has helped me narrow down my interests within the marine field. This experience has [also] provided me with the confidence that pursuing a Ph.D. in Oceanography is the path I’d like to take after graduation. 

SC: What advice do you have for other students looking to work in a lab setting as an undergraduate student? 

EK: Try not to get your sights set on one particular internship/job/opportunity and talk to your professors! I definitely had my hopes up on a couple of REU programs this summer that I thought sounded perfect. When these opportunities were gone, I thought I had lost out on the so-called “perfect” experience. However, out of nowhere, it was actually a recommendation Dr. Schwartz made that provided the connection to SCCWRP. Although I didn’t get the fun of traveling somewhere new this summer, I ended up with a job oriented to my goals, with fun and talented scientists, along with the opportunity to continue the job for the rest of my undergraduate experience.

The school year may have just started, but it’s never too early to start thinking about internships and research! The Center for Undergraduate Excellence is available to help students in their research and internship experience searches. Check out their website for an updated list of student opportunities!