Bay lab at UC Davis
Genetics grad student Leslie Herrera, Dr. Rachael Bay, lab manager Brenda Cameron, and me

My introduction to PREP@UC Davis

-- Colton Baumler

Students in the Yang lab, Concordia St. Paul University
From left to right: me, Laurel Carlson, Brianna Holtmeier, and Dr. Mary Ann Yang. The team worked to create a tissue engineering scaffold that used the chorioallantoic membrane of chicken embryos in vivo, via artificial culture vessels

I never thought I would be a research scientist until the opportunity was all but thrust upon me during my undergraduate tenure by Dr. Mary Ann Yang, a faculty member at my alma mater. Dr. Yang focused on my development as a researcher and in doing so, invited me into a career I had never considered.

My undergraduate institution was a small, private university that catered mostly to pre-med students. Therefore, there were few resources to finding opportunities in STEM graduate studies, nor was there a reputation for me to leverage myself into grad school. As a first-generation college graduate, higher education was very foreign territory to me, which led to my reluctance to apply to graduate school. I didn't overcome this uncertainty until a month prior to application deadlines.

This hesitation could be seen in my applications: my statements lacked refinement and direction. As the rejections came, I relinquished my aspirations of becoming a graduate student.

Shortly after my final rejection arrived -- what felt like the last nail in the coffin of my dream of becoming a "true scientist" -- my wife went into labor.

baby and dad
Baby and mom

Little did I know that with the birth of our daughter, I was offered a new academic opportunity that I had not known existed.

Maybe my daughter personifies my luck, maybe fate was looking out for me, or maybe it was just serendipity. But the first day after my daughter’s birth, on the brink of a Minnesotan blizzard, I received an email from Dr. Carole Hom. Fortunately, she had gotten ahold of my rejected graduate school application to UC Davis and extended a personal invitation to apply to the PREP program at UC Davis.

I re-read that email a dozen times looking for the catch. The email never asked for a credit card number, bank account and routing number, or any typical scamming message. I applied the following day, only to be interviewed in the coming weeks, and fortuitously invited to the program the following month.

These whirlwind events led to the most rewarding academic year of my life to date.

GRFP draft with comments
An early draft of my GRFP proposal

The PREP cohort of UC Davis works together in a year-long program. The first weeks are spent developing elevator speeches (get used to this idea) and meeting faculty as they present themselves and current literature related to their work. Following this, we spent 6+ weeks writing a proposal for NSF graduate research fellowship competition [editor's note, 30 March 2020: he got one] together, culminating in a dozen drafts until a well-refined document was submitted. The final push was to prepare a poster to present at ABRCMS and apply to grad programs.

Bay lab at UC Davis
Genetics grad student Leslie Herrera, Dr. Rachael Bay, lab manager Brenda Cameron, and me

Meanwhile, ~75% of our time is spent in separate labs across UC Davis diverse faculty working on individual projects. After this push, everything calms allowing attendance to classes, grad school interviews, and seminars. Throughout these rigorous months, my scientific writing has grown drastically, I have a firm understanding of my path through academia, and I have cemented my conviction to pursue graduate school.

All the PREP programs across the US were created for individuals who need guidance to navigate academia, who are unsure about spending six years in graduate school, or want to hone their skills as a researcher.

Any of the nationwide PREP programs are exactly for you. However, my preference will always be with UC Davis thanks to the honesty, sincerity, and faith Carole and Dan put into their cohorts year after year.

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