Laurie Rumker, '15
Laurie Rumker is a student at Stanford University concurrently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Human Biology with a concentration in Immunology, Infectious Disease and Global Health and a Master of Science in Biomedical Informatics through the Stanford School of Medicine. Beyond her coursework, Laurie conducted honors thesis research on the human microbiome, she was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal, and she was Co-President of Cap and Gown, Stanford's academic and leadership honor society for women. She also sings with the University Singers chorus, played for the women's club lacrosse team and served as a Resident Assistant in freshman dormitory Burbank. While an undergraduate at Stanford, Laurie also became a founding board member of the 501(c)(3) organization Friends of Minzoto. Laurie is intrigued by the relationships between microorganisms and the human body in both pathogenic and healthy contexts and she is passionate about studying those microbe-human relationships in clinical, informatics and basic research settings.
I participated in the Human Biology cohort of Bing Honors College in order to get a head start on the composition of my written thesis before the onset of fall quarter classes. BHC enabled me to work intensively on my thesis amid a band of fellow students similarly committed to independent research while under the tutelage of expert writers. In addition to dedicated work time with the support of peers and mentors, BHC provided a unique opportunity for students to share their discoveries with one another. Each participant in BHC was deeply passionate about their work and eager to share their curiosity and lessons learned along the path of thesis development. I relished the chance to learn about a wide range of fascinating work in the field of Human Biology and across other disciplines from students in other BHC cohorts. Together, we supported one another through the challenging aspects of undertaking an honors thesis project and celebrated the achievements of our fellow students.
Participating in BHC allowed me to begin senior year with a substantial portion of my thesis already written. I also emerged from BHC with a clear and realistic plan for self-directed deadlines that would allow me to continue the writing process during the school year and avoid a time crunch in the spring before departmental and university deadlines. Focusing exclusively on my thesis work for two weeks also gave me an opportunity to think deeply about where my work fits into the collective knowledge set of the field and the potential applications of my findings, even though I had not yet completed my data analysis. That perspective was invaluable in guiding the story I crafted with my thesis once I generated my results later in the year and allowed me to place those results within the broader contexts of microbiology and medicine.
Undertaking an honors thesis research project can be challenging at every stage of the process, from crafting a driving research question to the travails of experimentation to writing the final composition. There is no formula for navigating these challenges, as they will look different for each student, but I found several tactics especially helpful for my thesis:
I was fortunate to received guidance from many sources during my thesis work, from peers and writing mentors in BHC to faculty in the Program in Human Biology to mentors within my laboratory. One piece of advice that came to guide much of my thesis writing was suggested by my fantastic chief research mentor, Dr. David Relman. Dr. Relman encouraged me to consider the thesis like storytelling, where I needed to set the scene of existing knowledge, establish the exigence for my work without revealing the punchline, and guide readers through the progression of my work and to my ultimate conclusions in a way that captures audience attention, engagement and interest. Science writing can be predisposed to the exclusion of narrative elements, but especially when an author is crafting a scientific document over 60 pages long, thinking about audience and storyline can be extremely valuable.
Plan carefully and plan ahead, but do not become overly attached to your plans. Keeping an open mind can allow you to incorporate new methods or theories into your work and allow you to adapt when your research path is altered by unexpected challenges. I would also recommend that juniors explore the many funding opportunities Stanford provides for undergraduate student research, from Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) Major Grants to Chappell Lougee Grants.
When I began working on my thesis, I was worried that research and writing would consume my senior year at Stanford and prevent me from taking advantage of the many other resources and opportunities Stanford has to offer. I was entirely mistaken! With careful self-management, a thesis can be a fantastic outlet for personal investigation, creativity and expression and an avenue for immense personal and scholastic development, without overtaking your life.
After finishing my senior year and honors thesis last spring, I am now studying as a co-terminal masters student in the Biomedical Informatics program at the Stanford School of Medicine. My research work was one of several driving motivations for my current studies. Through my research, I came to realize that informatics approaches are integral to analyzing microbiome data from human subjects and can be exceptionally valuable for pursuing research questions in other domains of medicine. Continuing at Stanford for a co-term year post-thesis has also allowed me to collaborate with my research mentors in the expansion of my thesis for formal publication. My honors thesis research and writing experience also reinforced my desire to pursue a career in academic medicine.