Making Research Feel Doable
The vocabulary used in describing research often makes it come off as excessively dense and confusing. Which of the following sounds like an easier set of tasks? “For my project this summer, I sat in front of a microscope to pick grains of sand, did some coding, made a bunch of PowerPoint presentations, and also poured vinegar in buckets,” or “I extracted and analyzed microfossils found in sediment samples taken from the Pacific and the Caribbean to gain further understanding of ecological baselines for parrotfish, as well as quantifying the effect of fishing regulations on herbivore populations”? The first one probably sounds a lot more manageable, but both statements accurately describe the research project I undertook this summer.
I remember thinking that research was only for “smart” people, and that I wasn’t qualified to do it in any way until some unspecified point in the future. Who would have wanted me to work in their lab? I hadn’t taken any classes relevant to this project, and while I liked ecology, the last time I had a formal lesson in anything related to marine biology was elementary school! What could I do to be useful in something as complicated as research?
I did not feel confident about my abilities at the beginning of the summer. I didn’t have any experience working with fossils, and I didn’t fully understand the larger context that my project fit into. To my surprise, my project mentor Erin was incredibly patient and accommodating. She understood that I had little experience in anything related to this field of work, and guided me through explaining the importance understanding ancient herbivore populations and linking me several academic papers to read for context. Once I was caught up to speed, my summer project felt a lot more accessible, as I understood the goal of the research and what I could do to contribute with my knowledge, ability, and available time. I was able to start thinking independently about how I wanted to sort and display my data as well as what comparisons and analyses I wanted to make. I didn’t know everything, and certainly felt foolish many times, but feeling stupid and feeling your way through (with some guidance!) is probably the best way to learn in research. (See: http://jcs.biologists.org/content/joces/121/11/1771.full.pdf)
Research can be really slow! When I started the EUREKA summer program, I thought that I would have all this data to show at the end because I would be working full time for two months, but I’ve only managed to get through six or seven samples by the end of this whole process. In order to get a conclusion that’s worth publishing, I would probably need to get through somewhere between thirty and one hundred samples. I’m not trying to say that this is a bad thing, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience to see how much time needs to be put in to move science forward. I feel lucky to have been part of the EUREKA program, as the best way to see the speed of the whole process of research is to see every stage of a study or experiment, and this program gave me a look into that.
In my experiences, people tend to recommend reading departmental websites and research papers before approaching professors to look for opportunities in research. Which is great advice! But sometimes it can seem really daunting because of the complicated language and all the vocabulary words being thrown around. To that I say: understand as much as you can and go for it anyways. You don’t need to know everything that’s going on to get started, because a lot of it will make more sense once you start feeling your way through the process. And I’m pretty sure that professors and graduate students know this, and are willing to help you learn as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort to honor your commitments and do your best to contribute to the group while also gaining understanding along the way. You absolutely do not need to be a genius or have a 4.0 GPA to begin doing research, it’s just a matter of taking things seriously and getting out there!
The most important thing for getting started in research is to go for it, so the link to the directory for NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates is below! The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a governmental agency that uses taxpayer dollars to pay for academic research in sciences (including social sciences!) and the link below shows programs that use NSF funding to help undergraduates get into research.
Most programs listed occur over the summer, where you get paid to go stay at another college for a little while to do a project. Whether you want to pursue graduate school or not, it’s definitely a great experience that helps you understand the process of research and academia while also getting to travel and live in another place for a bit! It looks great on resumes too, as most of these programs involve a lot of independent responsibilities and public speaking. You do NOT need to be a perfect student or have prior research experience to win these, so get out there and apply if you’re interested!