Soccer and science create the ultimate team dynamic

Credit: Aisha Han/Assistant Visual Editor Credit: Aisha Han/Assistant Visual Editor

At first glance, the words “soccer” and “science,” or “soccer” and “biology,” seem to have little in common.

But for soccer teammates and biology majors Samantha Smith, Haili Adams, and Nicole Winegardner, a senior and two juniors respectively, the skills learned when playing on Carnegie Mellon’s women’s varsity soccer team help develop the skills required when working in Professor Jonathan Minden’s biology lab.

Teamwork is a skill critical on the field and in the lab, where the athletes work within a 12-person “Proteomics Platoon,” whose main goal is analyzing various protein changes, which can be applied in research on cancer and other chronic diseases.

The research team uses two-dimensional gel electrophoresis and fluorescent coloring to detect minute differences in various kinds of proteins, and these differences could help people pinpoint properties that could signify disease. This method works by applying electricity to move the negatively-charged proteins or other molecules through the gel medium, and this separates out the molecules by size because shorter and smaller molecules move through the porous medium faster.

In the case of the Proteomics Platoon’s research, the proteins of different cell extracts are first color-coded using fluorescent chemistry, then mixed and run through the gel medium.

Proteins found in both samples would appear yellow while proteins in only one of the extracts would appear as red or green.

This method has been used to detect protein changes in areas ranging from fruit fly embryo development to yeasts and cancer cells. Experiments frequently take a while to finish, which makes collaboration all the more essential — and for Smith, that’s where being together on the same soccer team helps.

“Being on the same team on the field makes our relationship off the field so much stronger,” said Smith in an interview with The Tartan.

To her, seeing Adams and Windegardner, who joined Professor Minden’s lab at her recommendation, following her footsteps in the lab and supplementing their academic work in biology by doing real-world research is an incredibly rewarding experience. Communication is an essential skill too, because ideas must flow around in order for research to run smoothly.

Besides teamwork and friendship, these three young women have benefited in other ways through the combination of research and soccer.

“We don’t have a lot of time during the day to waste, so when we get to running an experiment we want to be as efficient as possible,” Smith said.

Time management is crucial to ensuring that they can juggle classes, homework, soccer, and research all at once.

Another critical skill these young ladies take away from research is persistence.

“We need to be able to work through a lot of different problems and troubleshooting to achieve our goal in biology, so continuously trying different approaches is necessary,” Smith said.

The presence of difficulties is certain, but how a person handles it holds the key to success or failure.

But to Smith, the most important skill she has learned from her experience doing research at Carnegie Mellon is curiosity.

“It is hard to ask questions because you don’t want to sound uninformed or feel insecure about whether your questions are ridiculous,” she said, but learning how to be inquisitive pays off because it opens one’s eyes to new perspectives in research.

Smith says she is grateful to be part of the lab, and would “100 percent recommend” it to younger students to look for research opportunities, whether they are in athletics or not, because she “personally believes that there is a lot to gain from doing field work outside of the classroom.”