The Center for Experiential Learning and Diversity

Vanessa Palmer

Research Scholar

Major(s): Chemistry
Project: Investigating the DNA Repair Mechanism of Deinococcus Radiodurans

After completing her Mary Gates Research project, Vanessa spent winter quarter 2007 in Antarctica, where she served as a glaciology intern. There, she studied the West Ice Sheet to analyze and compare ice flow dynamics over time using GPS and radio polarimetry.


vanessapalmerWhere did you graduate from high school?

Williston High School; Williston, North Dakota.

Why did you decide to come to the UW?
UW has a reputation for being this massive research institution. I knew that I wanted to study chemistry and that undergraduate research opportunities at any of the schools in my home state would be pretty scarce, so I made the decision to look into it. I liked Seattle, I liked the campus, and I wanted to get out of North Dakota – it was overall a good combination.

What extracurricular activities are you involved in?
I’m involved in Alpha Chi Sigma (a chemistry fraternity) and Free Radicals (a chemistry club), I’m a DJ at RainyDawg Radio, and I’ve also been a tutor for UW’s Pipeline Program.

What are your interests?
Travel, pugs, and chemistry.

How did you first become involved in your project?
For my chemistry project, I had a friend (now a coworker) who tipped me off at the end of my freshman year that my PI [Principal Investigator] was hiring, so I jumped on the chance to get into a lab. Everyone here is really collaborative and willing to answer questions, so it was a good fit from the start.

For the Antarctic project, I heard that the PI was looking for an undergraduate to spent winter quarter in Antarctica. The job description didn’t stipulate that applicants had to be in Earth Sciences, so I applied but figured I probably wouldn’t be selected. I ended up being shortlisted and interviewed and then got word that I had been selected a few months later. Two days after that, I was already getting my physical and bloodwork done and making an appointment to get my wisdom teeth removed in order to pass the physical requirements for deployment.

Why did you decide to begin/work on your project?
In chemistry, I had been working under a graduate student on the larger project for quite a while and the opportunity came up for me to have a “sub-project” within that. Progress is slower than if someone were telling me what to do, but I’m learning a lot more.

For Antarctica – seriously, who could pass up an opportunity like that?

What is rewarding about your project?
I’ve really enjoyed becoming familiar with a broader range of analytical techniques in chemistry. I want to eventually attend graduate school in chemistry or a related field, so the skills I’ve picked up will be very useful. I’ve also had a number of opportunities to present my research, so I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with public speaking in an academic environment.

For Antarctica – come on. I got to go to Antarctica. I also got to meet some really amazing people. I was part of a five-person team made up of people from New Zealand, Japan, the US and Demark, and ranging in age from 20 (me) to 58. It gave me the opportunity to learn about different cultures and how to relate topeople that don’t necessarily share my background.

What is difficult/challenging about your project?
In any field, research is a generally frustrating occupation. Things rarely work the first time out, and often results aren’t what’s expected. That said, as long as you try to look at it as a chance to learn something about what you’re doing instead of doubting yourself or giving up, a “failed” experiment often leads to one of those forehead-slapping moments where you realize what you need to change.

Antarctica comes with its own set of challenges. The isolation can get pretty intense out in the field and it’s a harsh environment to live in. How these factors affect you is determined largely by your attitude. Also, you and your team members are around each other (and only each other) 24 hours a day for weeks on end, so it’s important to be able to work together and for members to talk about issues they might be having.

What are your plans after graduation?
Right now, the plan is to apply to a program called Teach for America and tentatively attend graduate school following that.

Is there anything that you’d like other students to know? Any words of advice or encouragement?
Get involved in research and volunteer activities – you can learn more from them than you ever could in a classroom. Programs like the Mary Gates Scholarships really do make it possible to find a balance between extracurricular and financial obligations.