First 2 Weeks of Grad School

*This post is part of a series of posts based on my research as a masters student at UGA. To find out more go to my page Holy Basil Research.

I am two weeks into grad school. It. Is. Hard.

First, my classes. I am taking Plant Growth and Development, Statistics and a reading/writing intensive class called the Athens Urban Food Collective. They are difficult, but going well so far.

Then, there’s my research. Oh boy, let me tell you about my research. Through the grant writing process and telling people about my project over the last 8 months, it seemed quite simple. I would say something like: “My research is on a medicinal herb from India called Holy Basil. I want to see how different growing practices affect the essential oils and antioxidant content of Holy Basil to see if we can improve yield and quality of the plant”.

It seems so easy. But in reality, for any research project, it is very time-consuming and complicated to figure out the details. I planted my Holy Basil in July (you can more about it here). They have begun to flower, so we are harvesting on Tuesday morning this week. With the harvest date approaching, we had to go back to the literature to find protocols for harvesting, weighing, separating, and drying each sample and create a system for recording all the important information about each plant.

In addition, with harvest coming so soon, I needed to get a jump on what I am supposed to be doing with the samples once they are ready to be analyzed.  That took me to the Food Science building to consult with the Food Scientist on my committee.  Extracting antioxidants and essential oils will be a little more difficult than I thought. First, I needed to complete a lab safety training to be able to work in the lab. Then I needed to figure out the right lab equipment, procedures and protocols for extracting essential oils and antioxidants. What does that entail? You guessed it. I had to go back to the literature to figure out how everyone else extracted these compounds in similar studies.

I will use essential oil extraction as an example of how this process goes. My research led me to hydrodistillation (distilling with water) using a clevenger trap to catch the essential oils. Then I had to look further to figure out what a clevenger trap is, how to get it, what other glassware is needed and how to set  up and run the apparatus. Once the essential oils are extracted, I had to find out how to  separate and store them. Then I had to figure out how I am going to analyze the essential oils once they are extracted. I will be doing this using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry aka GC/MS. I have no experience with these machines so I needed to find someone who could help me learn how to use them, and requires me to refresh my knowledge of organic chemistry. As you can see, it becomes a black hole of questions and details that need to be figured out.

In addition, since we are harvesting our first round of holy basil plants on Tuesday, we need to start our next round of plants and determine what growing practices we want to manipulate in our experiments. This involves going back to the literature to read, read, and read all the articles I could find about other researchers that have done similar experiments, and compile the information into a table. This is important so we can design our experiment in a way that adds new information to the existing body of knowledge.

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Needless to say, this has been a challenging couple of weeks. I had no idea there would be SO MANY DETAILS to figure out with my research project, my classes and all the other commitments of being in grad school like grant writing, seminars, departmental functions, and homework. But I am loving the challenge, and I know this experience and information is going to be valuable to my future. No matter where I end up!


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