The Bumfuzzling World of Life In A Lab Coat

I used to think that research would be like baking a dessert. After procuring all of the necessary ingredients and instruments, a person could simply follow the recipe’s directions in order to prepare some form of tasty goodness. Easy as cake, right?

Wrong. In actuality, research is like a 5,000 piece puzzle that requires you to shape and decorate each individual puzzle piece before assembling the pieces into an exact replicate of Van Gogh’s Starry Night masterpiece. There is one piece of good news however: you can sift through and use the surplus of background information and methods that were written by strangers who once attempted this challenge.

You don’t know where to start? You don’t know how to get to where you’re going? You don’t know the first thing about puzzles except that the goal is to have a completed image? That’s okay! Part of the puzzle piece production purpose is to figure everything out as each day comes. Your plans are going to change daily as you overcome and encounter unforeseeable obstacles. On some days, you’re going to feel like the Puzzle Master Supreme who rules over all such puzzles with a wise and powerful hand. On other days, you will feel like the court jester who spends all of his time running around and looking like a fool.

If there’s one thing that research has taught me so far (other than the ever important skill of counting cells with a hemocytometer), it’s perseverance. To be honest, I’m a quitter. Typically when the going gets tough, the tough get going… and I go the other way. Research is different. In the past two weeks, I have concocted several different escape plans, but I have to finish this, whether as a success or a giant flop of failure. I have had to summon the courage to face my mistakes and failures head on as well as the fortitude to find the causes and solutions to the problems. I am utterly thankful for and dependent on the encouragement and support that comes from my family, my friends, and my professors. Perseverance is a painful lesson to learn, but is definitely a life lesson that I am sure to utilize for the rest of my life.

Intro To Summer Research

Some people use the summer to relax at the beach or on a cruise; others find a summer job at a camp or in their hometown in order to make some extra cash.

I returned to Erskine, as one of three students who are working underneath the Biology Department to study the toxic effects of titania nanoparticles on freshwater organisms. The other two students, Zach Bowens and Reid Windmiller, are studying the common water flea Daphnia magna, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, and a microscopic animal called Philodina acuticornis. My research is on four different algae species that are frequently found in North American freshwater environments. This past week, I am simply culturing the algae and finding each species’s exponential growth period during which I can conduct the actual test that includes titanium dioxide.

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The algae is cultured in Erlenmeyer flasks kept under a light table.

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Using a spectrophotometer to track algal growth.

This kind of work may seem mundane, but in reality, I find myself enjoying almost every aspect of my time here. I was afraid that being the only girl in the student group would be depressing and lonely, but Reid and Zach, as well as other students who are at Erskine for Chemistry research, always keep me in high spirits, both inside and outside of the lab. We have so much fun together, whether we’re grocery shopping together, ambitiously singing the Australian national anthem in Australian accents, or cashing in free sandwiches at Chickfila.

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From left: Reid Windmiller, Rebecca Reiter (me), and Zach Bowens

I have only been back at Erskine for a week, and so many things have exceeded my expectations. As the summer progresses, I will be sure to keep you updated!

Fighting the Fear of Failure

“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

I’m pretty confident that Thomas Wayne’s encouragement to his son, the future hero of Gotham City, will be one of the major themes of this semester for me. It’s barely a week into the spring semester of my sophomore year, and I already feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Earlier, I was telling some friends that it feels as though the neat, orderly boxes inside my brain have been flipped over, and all of their contents are scattered around the floor of my brain.

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Feeling like this…

Today has been especially difficult. Every hour was slam-packed with classes, meetings, preparatory work, studying, teaching SI, and other responsibilities. I wasn’t able to spend more than 10 minutes in my room until right now, at 10:00 pm. Now, I am not trying to complain or be a self-proclaimed martyr of the difficulties of being a hardworking, involved student. I honestly love everything that I am a part of, and would be super unhappy to cut anything out of the semester. Dropping my Literature For Young Adults class was one of the hardest decisions that I have had to make so far.

My whole point is that I am finally starting to realize that it’s okay to not be a perfect student. I don’t have to have it all together. There are 600-something other students here who are all scrambling to get their lives together too, and that is nothing to feel ashamed or worthless about. Alternatively, I think that when people stop trying to hide their flaws, and instead depend on others for growth, a great potential for improvement is available. Mistakes happen. Success is never guaranteed. It is okay to not be perfect. Rather than being afraid of failing, I should be more afraid of being beaten by failure than of the act of failing, because failure is an inevitable part of life.

So when you fall, Rebecca, why do you fall?

So I can learn to pick myself up.

Kicking Back with the Kooistras

This past weekend, I was reminded of a great Erskine quality that I so often overlook. On the day that I moved back into my dorm for J-term, I spent the evening with President Kooistra and his wife, sipping refreshingly delicious white tea and eating homemade apple pie. Together, we marveled at God’s mysterious work in our lives, confessed that our tendency to drive over the speed limit sometimes, and even bonded over our befuddlement with directions. In short, I had quite a delightful time with the Kooistras.

The thing that struck me the most about the evening is that Dr. Kooistra and his wife find joy in simply spending time with me. They could have preferred to have a solitary and relaxed final evening of Christmas break, but instead, they genuinely wanted to spend their evening with me. To the rest of the world, I am just an average sophomore Joe who is awkwardly figuring out life one day at a time. Yet, at Erskine, the president of the college sees me as someone worth investing his time and energy in, and this is additionally true for every student at Erskine. How absolutely, delightfully humbling and encouraging.

Obviously, I am not asserting that Erskine is the only college whose president opens his doors and welcomes students in. I am positive that many presidents are warm and inviting. I simply want to share another chapter from my story here at Erskine, because this school truly is a wonderful, blessed place.

Running the Race: the Barn-K for Joy

Some of the things that I appreciate most about Erskine are the ministry opportunities that occur throughout the year. During this past year, students, faculty, and non-Erskinites alike all played parts in benefiting the community, whether by raising money for the American Cancer Society through the Miss Erskine Pageant, by volunteering at an Eagle Scout’s project, or by participating in any other numerous ministry events. For me, the most memorable ministry opportunity of my freshman year will always be the RUF-hosted Barn-K For Joy. The Barn-K for Joy raises money to send a young man to Camp Joy, a camp that is specially designed for people with special needs, through a 3.6 mile race from the Due West sign in Erskine to the barn where RUF meets on Sundays. Paul Patrick, the campus minister at Erskine, finds sponsors who will donate a certain amount of money depending on the number of participants in the race. RUF has been able to send a special young man named Warren Sullivan to Camp Joy for many years, and I think that is one of the most special things about the ministry and about Erskine.

Now, not all people are created equally in the aspect of physical fitness. Take me, for example. I enjoy going on “runs” (much walking occurs), but I am definitely not a “runner.” After I passed the first mile marker on the road, a part of my heart sank because I was so tired and still had more tan two miles left. Other [crazy] people are super fit and love to run, so they leave people (like me) in the dust. Some people hate running with a passion and enjoy a leisurely stroll instead. No matter what category a person falls into, he/she is guaranteed to really enjoy the Barn-K because it’s designed to accommodate to all types of people. Plus, everyone gets rewarded at the end of the race with a buffet of water, fruit, pizza, and snow cones, a super cool t shirt, and an amazing lesson by Paul Patrick!

After telling you about my wimpiness and how tired I was from the race, I would like to say that passing the finish line was the best feeling that I felt that day, but despite a grand feeling of relief and accomplishment, I experienced an even better feeling later on. Warren Sullivan got to come to RUF with some of his friends and caretakers on the day of the race. Warren’s uncontainable excitement was almost tangible as it filled the entire barn. I remember sitting on the hay bale and feeling more joy and thankfulness than I had felt in a long time. This time, my joy did not come from the blessings that God had given me, but from the blessing that God gave to Warren, through us. I was completely overwhelmed because I could almost see Christ lovingly watching Warren, his blessed and beautiful child. The Barn-K for Joy was so aptly named, not just for the camp, but because everyone experienced inexplicable joy as we watched Warren’s reactions to Christ in his life.

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Day One as a Choraleer: the almost end of my academic journey

One of my favorite scenes in The Holiday is when Jack Black’s character, Miles, says to Iris, played by Kate Winslet,

“Iris, if you were a melody…(insert a beautiful, soothing melody here) I used only the good notes.”

That’s how I had always viewed music, the good notes that live and breathe and play to describe people’s lives and situations. It was something easy, soothing, soul thrilling, and life-inspiring. All that was ever required of me was to hear a song, listen to it, fall in love with it, and then sing it. Nothing more and definitely nothing less. Until I walked into Erskine Choraleers, Fall of 2010, unawares and unarmed-who knew you needed a pencil for music?

A seat was assigned, a pack of music was handed to me, and in walked a man who would forever change not only my life but the way I viewed and interpreted music. The memory, though present, is slightly blurred. He held a pencil in hand and commanded us to stand. “Open your pack and pull out….” all I heard was Bach. That sounded familiar. Glancing to my right I watched to see which piece of music my fellow alto selected and did the same. Then I made the terrible mistake of opening the piece to reveal a sheet of paper on which an enormous ant hill had exploded. I’m sad to inform there were no survivors.

“Alright then…shall we sing?”

WAIT….WHAT?

Where was the music? You know, the part where I get to hear what I’m singing before I’m forced to sing it? Lost, disoriented, freaked out…are just a few words deemed worthy of describing how I felt.

“And if you will please in measure — that is a carry over, thank you.”

Carry over? Leaning over and whispering barely above a breath, I asked the alto to my right, “What’s a carry over?” I will never forget her reaction for it was the disbelief in her jaw drop, the roll of her eyes, and the sad truth in her voice that made me feel inadequate and unworthy.

“You don’t know what a carry over is?”

She made it sound so simple, so easy. My ignorance of sight reading could be overlooked, but not having the capability to understand a carry over was unacceptable! I was unfit to be in the same room as the rest of them; I did not deserve the title of Choraleer.

Rehearsal ended and I found myself sitting on one of the many swings afforded to us on campus, calling my mother, crying and admitting the following:

I’m just going to pack up and come home, Mama. I can’t read music…I didn’t even know what a CARRY OVER is! 

And, my mother in her wisdom asked me one simple question, “Why did you go to Erskine?”

Amid sobs, To learn music.

“And what did you learn today?”

Amid sobs with a smile, What a Carry Over is. *chuckle*

“And what will you learn tomorrow?”

Well, tomorrow and every day after that I learned that music is more than a melody we love and cherish. It is a full time commitment to a level of excellence that only a few get to experience much less achieve. Sometimes music isn’t only about “the good notes.” Sometimes they are sad, minor, dreadful moments of dissonance that collide, crash, and magically resolve. Sometimes music must first make us feel lost before we can be found.

Time hop to a small yet adequate Chorus Room at Newberry High. A young man walks in, a new student! He is joining my 8B and is looking forward to making music. Then I hand him a copy of the piece we are working on. He was lost, disoriented, and reminded me a lot of day one almost five years ago. “So,(student name), tell me, how lost and inadequate do you feel?” He replied, “Very.” I smiled, “Good!” Confused, he asked, “Good?” Opening the sheet music I replied, “Yes…Good. Because the lost can always be found. Now…this is known as a staff and these are clefs.The treble clef….”

Life lessons learned at Erskine that have managed to find their way into the new steps my life has taken. Day one as a Chorus Teacher felt very much like day one as a Choraleer: the almost end of my journey….almost.

“I hope you have a lovely day”

The bell had rung. The students, more than eager to leave, trampled over each other and chairs racing head-long to  the bus pick-up line which had suddenly become the universal symbol of freedom. As they and their tumultuous selves faded from view and (thankfully) ear shot, the following scene was born:

I have seen him only once before. Today he slipped past the mob and myself, heading straight for the piano. Fingers touching keys ever so lightly, he played a rag time. The echo from our rather old instrument filled the room with luscious tones and brought with it a sense of hope. Granted, my students are obnoxious and loud, unruly creatures of the day but that does not alter what Music is and has been in my life and the lives of so many, this young man being a prime example. Within seconds of unadulterated bliss, the melody ceased-its sounds a lingering memory-and the young man excused himself with the following phrase:

“I hope you have a lovely day.”

And I will, my friends. I will.

If ever a moment could be bottled away for a rainy day, I would that it be the moment this blonde haired, blue-eyed wonder of a human chose to share with me a piece of his happiness. Music, as I often find myself expressing to my students, should not be based solely on how it appeals to us or how it entertains, rather pleases our senses. Those are all wonderful aspects of Music which allow us to enjoy its many gifts. But there is a rather complicated and yet beautiful mystery to what Music does both in us and for us when used as a means to lift the fallen; or in my case, a rag time to revive a worn out teacher.

Prior to dismissal, my students posed a query concerning the many trophies that line a row of storage units in the far corner of the room. The most recent prize is dated at 2009 for their Gospel Choir and 2007 for their High School Chorus, more than 6 to 8 years ago. The students (being Freshmen) were alarmed to learn that other than a plaque for excellence from a Choral Festival, the remaining members of our Chorus did not have much of a legacy to leave behind. It swept silently and swiftly across their faces: this would be their fate.

And a moment was born.

“But that is their story, not yours. Music will give in return only what you are willing to invest. Next year, you will be sophomores and our Freshmen will look to you as the standard they should strive to meet; the legacy they should fight to uphold.” Pointing to the trophies, I stated, “But these will only be a shadow of what was achieved through the tireless efforts of many. Greatness did not come from winning a trophy; greatness was achieved first in this room and then acknowledged by many at those events. That is their story. What will be yours?”

So, what will be your story? Will you be the random, musical genius who tickles the ivories with some rag time treasures? Will you be the teacher looking for moments to birth? Or perhaps you are the soul dreaming of a legacy you think is out of reach?

Whatever it is, in the words of the Great yet famously unknown, “I hope you have a lovely day.”