A Summer Summary: Dark Energy, Quantitative Genetics, and Cats—Oh My!

My final exams were over, my room was emptied out, my boxes and bags were hauled (down four flights of stairs) into the family car, and I was finally ready to go spend fourteen hours driving from New Haven back to Batavia, IL. Don't worry, it was fantastic. As the scenery changed from densely-wooded hills to sweeping prairie and cornfields, I was able to catch up with my parents and tell them all about my first year at Yale. The hours and miles passed quickly, with much laughter and discussion (we breezed through Pennsylvania debating topics from my second-semester bioethics class!), and I felt myself steadily easing back into their lives, and my life, as we talked, I knew home would be quite a change from the schedule and surroundings of Yale, but I had plenty of things to be excited for over the next couple months...

I spent my first two blissful weeks of break catching up with friends from high school, going on walks with my family, playing with Hastings (my very sophisticated cat, see picture below), and reading most hours of the day and night. During that time, I also took (and passed!) the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) Exam. I had prepared for the exam by taking an EMT training course at Yale Health during the spring semester, and I am now planning to use this certification to work as an EMT for the Yale Emergency Medical Service.


After two weeks spent with my head stuck in a book, I gently removed it and stuck it up in the stars. Well, sort of. I was continuing a research project in the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Particle Astrophysics Department that I had started during high school. My previous work on the project had focused on identifying strong gravitational lensing systems through visual and computer analysis, working with data from the Dark Energy Camera (located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile). The location of these candidates is one of the experimental probes used by the Dark Energy Survey (an international scientific collaboration) to describe the growth of structure in the Universe, and it has been extremely rewarding to follow the progression of this technique from when I started looking for systems by eye (the summer after my sophomore year of high school), to writing computer programs to recognize and flag the systems automatically based on specific color patterns and galactic morphologies. My efforts over the summer focused on learning about parallelizing previously implemented computational processes in order to make the automated lens-finding process more efficient.


Though I am passionate about the work I have been involved in at Fermilab, I knew by spring of my freshman year that I wanted to get some biological research experience over the summer in order to make sure that was what I really wanted to study and to pursue. I also knew that I wanted to stay near Chicago for the summer so that I could be close to my family. However, after coming to this decision, I was a bit worried that I wouldn't be able to find opportunities that met both these conditions.

Enter: Yale advising. I engaged several resources over the course of my spring semester, including speaking with a pre-health advisor, faculty, and upperclassmen, in order to find a program that was right for me, and I ended up learning about a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Chicago Conte Center for Computational Neuropsychiatric Genomics via a newsletter sent out by the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department. After sending an application and some letters of recommendation, along with completing a Skype interview, I was accepted!

Throughout the ten weeks of the program (running from mid-June to late August), I conducted quantitative genetics research using a dataset of health insurance claims from over one third of the U.S. population. My research focused on estimating the heritabilities and genetic/environmental correlations between complex disease phenotypes. This topic, one to which I had no prior exposure, was incredibly exciting. Essentially, the resulting correlation values can be used to redefine the connections between diseases. For instance, some diseases are thought to be very closely connected, while others seem, at least superficially, to have less in common. Harnessing the power of computers and parallel processing, however, allows for new disease pairings to be discovered. It might be difficult/unlikely for a scientist or group of scientists to hypothesize that two seemingly unconnected diseases such as autism and irritable bowel syndrome are connected, when indeed they have been found to co-occur in individuals and in families. Knowing this, past evidence of the genetic/environmental factors causing one of the diseases can lead to new insights into the other. In this way, my work has the potential to serve as a sort of hypothesis generator for biomedical scientists.


Through the program, I was able to participate in a journal club, learn more about graduate programs at the university, and present my work at a final symposium alongside the other REU participants. Additionally, I am listed as an author on my graduate student mentor's paper that has been submitted for publication by a scientific journal. This experience reaffirmed my love for scientific research and equipped me with the personal and quantitative skills to pursue independent research in the future.

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One of the best surprises for me regarding my summer research experiences were the similarities between working at Fermilab and at the Conte Center. Many of the skills I first learned at Fermi, (computational techniques, reading/understanding scientific literature, presenting scientific claims, and interacting with scientists of all ages and fields of study) were exceedingly useful at the Conte Center and I know will be useful to me in all my future scientific endeavors. The research I was able to do at both institutions was fantastic and I was able to truly see how much I had grown as a scientist throughout my time at Yale. Through my coursework during the freshman year, I had not only been exposed to concepts that strengthened my foundation of scientific knowledge, I had been taught by faculty who were constantly urging their students to explore, to question, and wonder about the world around them. This interdisciplinary and inquisitive mindset helped me greatly throughout the summer, and it is one I hope always to possess.

Upon returning to Yale, it was such a treat to be able to discuss my experiences with my friends, classmates, and faculty, but it was even better to hear all that my peers had accomplished over the summer. I know fellow sophomores who learned Chinese in Beijing or Italian in Italy, interned at CERN and NASA, taken courses at the London School of Economics, and so much more. Yale has opened up the world to me through both giving me personal experiences and allowing me to learn about those of my passionate and intelligent peers. I don't know yet where I'll be next summer, but I do know that I will be able to find support and guidance in the Yale community for whatever I choose to do.