‘I just wanted to crunch some data:’ How mentoring and team skills led to a research success story

It was the summer of 2019, and WWU student Haley Holliday – then a Chemistry undergrad and now a Chemistry graduate student – was on crutches after ankle surgery following a rock-climbing injury, and was feeling a little sorry for herself.  

She stopped by the office of Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Manuel Montaño seeking an undergraduate research position for that fall, and Montaño, who had Holliday in a class that quarter and knew she was sharp, saw an opportunity. 

“She looked like she needed something to do,” Montaño said with a laugh. Luckily for her, he had a great project for her, one that suited her interests to a T. 

“When I took his class I felt like it was the perfect bridge between chemistry and environmental science, and I knew if he had a project for me, it would be more of the same,” Holliday said. “I just wanted to crunch some data.” 

And data, he had -- in droves.  

“I had been lucky enough to do some work in Vienna, Austria, where I had access to an absolute state of the art machine called an ‘inductively coupled-plasma time-of-flight mass spectrometer,’ and was able to use it to build a data set from water samples from the Athabasca River in Alberta, Canada,” he said. “We used that mass spectrometer to look for how tar sands and heavy metals – basically, pollution from the oil extraction happening in the Athabascan Oil Sands – were making their way into the river, and the differences in those elements between low-flow tributaries and high-flow rivers.” 

Holliday leapt at the chance to dive into the Athabasca River dataset that summer. As she began to make her way through the data and began to ponder how it might be represented visually, she knew she wasn’t being efficient – and that if she kept at the task at her current rate, it would never get done. 

“It was frustrating, because I felt like I knew where I wanted to go, but just didn’t really know how to get there,” she said. 

As it always does, summer gave way to fall, which gave way to winter, with Haley taking her classes and chugging away at her data. But winter quarter proved to be an inflection point in the project – Holliday was taking a biostatistics class with Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences Kathryn Sobocinski, a programming whiz. 

“Haley told me about her quandary, and it seemed like we could build some code that would help her with the project,” said Sobocinski. The challenge: figuring out a way for the code to read Haley’s data and then chronologically display all the elemental data in millisecond segments. 

Holliday said it was a tall task, and Montaño freely admitted it was beyond his skillset. 

“I have no ability to build that kind of programming. Like, none,” said Montaño. 

“Well, I have no idea about all that chemistry, so we’re even,” laughed Sobocinski. 

Holliday said the key to the project was understanding when she needed to ask for help. 

In the end, it was all about collaboration, and not what I could do on my own.

“I tried the ‘brute force method,’ but it didn’t work. It would have taken me forever and the final product wouldn’t have been as close to what it ended up being,” she said. “Realizing Kathryn and her skills could be the answer was just like a huge light bulb going off.” 

Without even really knowing it, Holliday was building a team and leading it to completion – real, in-depth project management work. It didn’t hurt that her two teammates were also mentors who are incredibly skilled in their fields. 

“In the end, it was all about collaboration,” she said. “And not what I could do on my own.” 

Her work bore fruit, even as she transitioned from an undergrad to a graduate student; along with colleagues at the University of Alberta, the University of Vienna, and the Colorado School of Mines, the trio published their work last April in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Earth and Space Chemistry Journal. 

And while getting “Exploring Nanogeochemical Environments: New Insights from Single Particle ICP-TOFMS and AF4-ICPMS” published and finally off her to-do list was a relief, she doesn’t underestimate the value of the project that started as “crunching some data” and ended up more than two years later as published research that she will have in her back pocket as she moves forward with a career and potentially down the line, a doctorate. 

“I want to work for 5 or 6 years in the field before I start on a doctorate,” said the Lake Chelan native who hopes to work in researching and developing the next generation of antidepressants. “And one thing this project taught me was the value of collaboration, which will be a huge lesson learned moving forward.” 

Three people laugh in a laboratory