Thoughts on Undergraduate Research

What is “undergraduate research?”

I spent most of my summer doing research at Stanford in the EE Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. It was an eye-opening experience for me, since before this summer, I had no clue what real academic research was. I’d worked as a research assistant at the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Dayton, OH, for the past 3 summers, but the problem was, as a senior in high school, I didn’t believe I could actually contribute anything worthwhile to the USAF mission, much less to the field of electrical engineering; and with that mindset, I was right–I couldn’t. But I did leave the base at the end of each summer with a solid appreciation for my mentor’s patience with my questions––I didn’t even know enough engineering vocabulary to ask proper questions––and overall mastery of EE. This guy is barely 30 years old, I thought. There’s no way I can learn that much in 10 years. That was back before I encountered the quarter system.

If you walk up to a science/engineering undergrad and ask, “What are you doing next summer?” there’s about a 98% chance that he’ll reply, “Oh, I’m just doing some research on campus.” Especially if “next summer” is actually Summer 2009 and tech companies are tossing employees overboard like sacks of sand from a sinking ship. Everyone always talks about “doing research,” but what part of “research” can a college undergraduate actually do? The answer, it turns out, is “a lot”––for the good of the undergrad AND of the research team he joins.

An undergrad can’t expect to waltz into a research group and immediately start churning out first authorships. You gotta pay your dues. That said, as long as you go in with an open mind and can-do attitude, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish, even in one summer of research. I’ll talk about what I did this summer in a later post; I’d like to think I did something meaningful in my own 10 weeks of research.

Let’s say you’re a research assistant in a bio lab for the summer, it’s 9AM, and you’re hard at work PCRing or pumping your mice/fish/monkeys full of chemicals. Your PI asks you to clean up the lab because he’s got a visiting professor from some university you’ve never heard of coming to tour the lab this afternoon. You can: a) whine and complain and spend your entire day slowly rearranging lab equipment––I mean, hey, your stipend check for the entire summer’s already signed and deposited anyway––or b) smile, clean like you’ve never cleaned before, and be one more injected mouse closer to curing cancer before the dining hall closes for lunch. It’s up to you. In real life, your success is almost always up to you.

In talking to professors and post-docs and grad students that I’ve met at Stanford and elsewhere, I’ve often heard that the common trait of all successful researcher/grad students is that they have acquired the ability to endure consistent uncertainty. No research scientist is ever 100% sure of a particular outcome and of the future applications of his work. That’s the challenge of research, and it may be for the best––the term “serendipity” comes to mind. Interestingly enough, many ASES speakers and business articles I’ve read have stressed that same capacity to act, to make the hard decisions, in the face of unpredictable circumstances as a quality that nearly all highly-regarded CEOs possess in spades. That unusual parallel hints at a secret to uncommon success that may be––dare I say it––universal.

-Joel

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