My Pandemic Summer Learning New Skills

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Photos and story by Riley Harriman, summer intern in the Reed lab and senior at Wake Forest pursuing a major in biology and minors in chemistry and entrepreneurship. Riley helped compile a review of Covid-19 smell loss and describes his experience learning the programming language R to develop a user interface for the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research, GCCR. Riley is also interested in photography and communication.

Have you ever been thrown into a project that was completely beyond your area of expertise?  When Monell Associate Director Dani Reed, my summer internship advisor, asked me to help code an app to show the results of an at-home smell and taste test to measure the effects of COVID-19, I thought it might be best to reiterate that I had been coding for no more than a month. At that time, my most recent accomplishment was making a subpar bar graph of a basic dataset. I didn’t know how to make an app. But Dani believed in me. Well I think she really believed in Reed lab member Chris Jones, and that he could guide me along. She was right.

Once I understood our goal, I had no clue where to begin. But Chris did. We began emailing and zooming and he began to put some code together. I would nod as if I understood what was going on. Soon our team expanded with the addition of expert coders former Reed lab member Bob Pellegrino and Monell Research Associate Cailu Lin. Before long we had the functioning foundation of an app my and nodding was still working; nobody could see through me, so I thought. 

One day, Chris assigned me the task of reformatting and making a graph look more appealing.  At first, I was anxious at the mere fact I had a task, and then worried that task was beyond my ability, but then realized, I think I might be able to do this. You see, while I was nodding excessively, I was also taking in little things over time. I didn’t learn enough to rebuild an app from the start, but I did understand how each part worked in general.

After making a copy because I didn’t want to break anything, I began to play around. I broke the code 5 times… 6 times… 75 times; I had to start from the base twice. Google became my best friend and I read endless online tutorials. But eventually I moved a graph here. And then one there. Changed the line color here. Made the text font larger so we can see it from there. Little by little, broken code by broken code, the app began to come together, and in my opinion, it began to look nicer. 

Feedback started to roll in on things as small as making a line a few pixels wider and as large eliminating a whole graph. Without realizing, the work I had done playing around with the app had led me to easily make these changes. In fact, I was explaining to others what I had learned; how to make a line 2 pixels wider or completely reformat a dataset.

It didn’t matter that at the start of the summer I could only make a bar graph with one bar. It didn’t matter that I was lost for a good stretch. With help from others, some persistence on my end, and some encouragement, I was able to learn a new skill which I will carry with me far beyond my time at Monell. While I will miss the short commute and the outdoor workspace while working remotely, I will miss the invaluable learning experiences and people the most.