-Interview and Article by Tintin Nguyen, An Undergraduate Research Ambassador at the University of Arizona
Conducting clinical trials with a medical research team. Developing middle school math learning
programs in Virtual Reality. Testing portable inflatable underwater tents at Biosphere 2. Studying
Earth’s past climate through clam shells. Senior Maddie Brown has done it all at the University of
Arizona while pursuing a major in Earth Ocean & Climate Studies and a minor in Marine Science.
Brown shared some thoughts about her decision to get involved in multidisciplinary research, “We
can be very limited by approaching a problem in a certain way. Working with so many different
professors and colleges has helped me see new perspectives on posing questions and tackling
issues. The diversity of the research team I have worked with is very beneficial. I approach every
research opportunity as a good opportunity regardless of the field.”
Her open-minded spirit of inquiry brought her to the Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) program,
a multidisciplinary and large-scale research collaboration between faculty, graduate, and
undergraduate students. Her VIP was about creating educational math tools in Augmented and
Virtual Reality that can support both visual and physical learners in middle school.
Here, she met VIP lead faculty Professor Winslow Burleson, whose work involves applying
technology to diverse fields across the sciences. Burleson found a kindred spirit in Brown and
offered her a research assistantship in his Ocean Space Habitat project. Dr. Burleson co-invented
a portable inflatable underwater tent that allows for deep, multi-hour scientific diving.
“UA’s Ocean Space Habit research collaborations are expanding what is possible and feasible in a broad range of underwater environments, ranging from coral reefs studies and novel fisheries, to
human robot collaborative teams and planetary analogue missions,” Dr. Burleson said, “Maddie has been instrumental in deploying the technologies we developed in the Biosphere 2 ocean.”
“I went to Biosphere 2 for a summer camp when I was 10. It’s something I’ve grown up knowing about in Tucson. So, I really enjoy doing field work in Biosphere 2,” Brown shared, “We research the different gasses that collect in the diver’s bloodstream and cause decompression sickness as they move from the depths back to the surface. The goal is to do a completely submerged dive for 24-48 hours.
The maximum we have achieved so far is a six-hour dive with two people.” In the project, Brown has worked with Biosphere 2 staff and collaborated with project partners from National Geographic. Dr. Burleson also introduced her to many meetings with other professors and marine biologists and encouraged her to be involved in the academic community.
Her connections have broadened her ways of viewing questions and helped her find jobs in scientific research.
In the project, Brown has worked with Biosphere 2 staff and collaborated with project partners from National Geographic. Dr. Burleson also introduced her to many meetings with other professors and marine biologists and encouraged her to be involved in the academic community. Her connections have broadened her ways of viewing questions and helped her find jobs in scientific research.
She reflected on the importance of collaboration in research, “A lot of research is about teamwork.
It’s biased and unsustainable doing research on your own. Something I’ve learned about doing
research is about asking questions and collaborating with other researchers. Research is humbling.
You know nothing. It’s about learning about other people and acknowledging you are not the
smartest person in the room.”
Doing research is not just about the subject itself, but also about a lot of administrative work behind
the scenes. Brown explained this aspect of research that is not often talked about, “I’ve written and
edited multiple NSF [National Science Foundation] grants. I learned how to write an IRB
[Institutional Review Board application, which protects rights and welfare of human research
subjects] for research protocols. I managed social media for a research team. I’m really grateful
for these experiences which are not always part of the typical research experience for an
Dr. Burleson added, “Maddie has been very helpful with writing proposals for the human subject
review board and getting them approved. All of these skills will help her as she becomes a more
skilled researcher in diverse disciplines.”
Working with Dr. Burleson in the Ocean Space Habitat project has solidified Brown’s interest in
marine biology. From migratory patterns of whales to predatory behaviors of sharks, she talked
about her passion for the ocean, “I told my parents I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was
seven. There are lots of unknowns in the ocean. We know even more about space than the ocean!
There are so many possibilities to pose questions and answers in marine science research.”
Brown has some advice for undergraduate students who want to get started in research, “The
diversity of research at the University of Arizona is very broad. There is always a professor or a
lab looking for an undergraduate research assistant. Just be open to different opportunities and be
proactive in asking professors for projects.” She shared that she has applied to many research
positions on Handshake and asked many professors if they know any colleagues who are open to
working with undergraduate students. She also frequently checked out emails from her department,
which introduced her to the VIP program.
Her research experiences have convinced her that doing research is her vocation, not just a future
job. She is planning to pursue a Master’s degree in Marine Science and get closer to her childhood
dream of becoming a marine biologist.