“What major do you plan on pursuing in college?” That is a question asked of many high school students. Throughout my freshman year at Los Altos High School, I very quickly discovered that I had a strong interest in the science field, after completing Biology Honors. I first heard about the Headwaters Research Experience from my Biology Honors teacher, who suggested it to students interested in pursuing a career in science. I figured this would be a great opportunity to gain experience, so I registered!
After the first week, I was faced with a huge challenge: deciding on a topic. Although it sounds so simple, the options seemed endless and I found it super difficult to decide on just one topic. After a lot of thought and talking with my mentor, I decided I wanted to develop a scientific question relating to COVID-19. I worked with viruses and diseases in my Biology Honors class and was extremely fascinated by epidemiology. This background experience I had with viruses and diseases made me want to focus on COVID-19 because of its impact on the world this past year. My question was, “How does the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater fluctuate based on the rising COVID-19 vaccination rates in Los Angeles, California?” This type of scientific question meant I would not be collecting my own data by creating an experiment, but instead I would be analyzing different sets of pre-existing data.
I needed the vaccination progress data from Los Angeles County as well as the data for COVID polymerase chain reaction (PCR) units in wastewater for this project. My mentor was great to work with, helping me find the wastewater data among many public data sets.
Speaking of my mentor, at the beginning of the program I was introduced to Keely Rodriguez, a Doctoral Researcher from the University of Nevada. Keely and I have a shared fascination for viruses and diseases, which made it easier to develop my research question and work with her throughout the program. It has been great working with a female scientist this summer and being mentored by someone who has been successful with a career in science was awesome, because this is a path I hope to pursue! Keely has been incredibly patient with me throughout this process, by giving constructive feedback and being super understanding over the fact that this is my first time writing a manuscript. Having a mentor throughout this process was really helpful with the feedback she gave on my work and the support she provided me throughout the program.
To analyze my data, I transferred the already-existing data into a spreadsheet so all the data was visible in one place and used a linear regression to compare vaccination rates and the amount of PCR units in wastewater. The results of my research supported my hypothesis because the figures I presented suggested that as vaccination rates in Los Angeles County increased, the SARS-CoV-2 PCR units in the wastewater decreased. I started analyzing the data available from December 2020 because that is when vaccines started being administered in California after three COVID vaccines were approved for emergency authorization in the United States. One interesting finding I discovered was that there was a dramatic increase in the PCR units in the wastewater in late December after the country’s citizens started being vaccinated. This could be because when people traveled during the holiday time, COVID cases also increased.
Now going back to that question I’m sure many students have been asked, yes, pursuing a career in science is definitely a goal of mine, even more so now that I’m completing my research experience! Science is something I am very passionate about and something that I enjoy learning about. Connecting with my mentor has been a very positive part of this experience, as well as seeing the progress I have made! It makes me feel so proud seeing what I have accomplished so far, knowing I have grown tremendously as a student. I have found the Summer Research Experience with the Headwaters Science Institute to be a great experience for students with a strong desire to grow as scientists, to gain experience in writing a scientific manuscript, and to work with other young scientists and mentors with many years of scientific training.