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:

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!

The Useful Powers of Office Hours

College can be a confusing time, especially when there’s no clear path towards success. When I was given the freedom to pick my own major, classes, and extracurricular activities, I felt overwhelmed. I entered UCSB as an Environmental Studies major, but I actually had no specific direction for my academic or professional future in mind. In fact, I had applied to other schools as different majors, because I really had no idea where I wanted my life to go during or after college.

I started college worried that I would be unable to do well in school without a larger plan to motivate me, so I decided to go to office hours to hopefully get advice from someone who might have been in my position before. I went to my TA for my Introduction to Environmental Studies class because it was the only class I had that was in my major department, so it would be likely that someone teaching the class would have advice most relevant to me.

I thought that things would be awkward and I wouldn’t learn anything, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my TA, Zoe Welch (pictured with me above this post’s title), was incredibly understanding and insightful. She helped me understand that I can’t really ask someone else what the “right” thing to do is, because that’s something that only I can answer in time.

Looking back, meeting and talking with Zoe was one of the most pivotal things that happened to me in my first year here. The majority of my successes in undergraduate research so far can be traced back to my interactions with her, as she helped me navigate college life, research, and even the majors that UCSB offers.

Zoe also told me about her experiences in graduate school and research, which made me feel much more comfortable about trying to get involved in undergraduate research. This confidence brought me to applying for an internship with the Burkepile Lab at the end of my first quarter, and I’ve worked as an undergraduate research assistant for them for the last six months. That position led me to apply for the EUREKA scholarship and my current work in the McCauley Lab, as I only learned about the scholarship’s existence from a graduate student in the Burkepile Lab. Zoe even wrote the recommendation letter that got me the scholarship, and we keep in touch regularly.

Some of the people working in the Burkepile Lab during Winter Quarter 2017.

Over the last year, I’ve had the luck to to speak with an assortment of graduate students and professors through office hours, lab work, and even mentorship programs. Multiple graduate students here have told me that they started their PhD programs with the intention of pursuing research, then changed gears to focus more on teaching after getting a taste of the ins and outs of academia. I’ve met people who obtained their master’s degrees, then decided they didn’t really love what they were studying and chose a very different for their PhD topic. All of this came to me as a surprise, as I had been under the impression that a person had to be completely assured and confident to succeed in research and academia. It’s really never too late to change when it comes to school, and it’s absolutely normal to be unsure.

The first step is to talk to people you want to learn from; if you’re interested in a certain subject within your field, look up professors and graduate students who study it and send them an email. Professors and teaching assistants are people who exist outside of lecture halls and discussion sections, and many of them are more than happy to help students sharpen their interests and share what they know. Not everyone will be able to assist you, but there are plenty of people at this university who are happy to help, as long as you ask and are willing to listen to what they have to say. You never know what you might find or learn from getting out there and asking questions, so take advantage of being here at this university and talk to people!

Ultimately, you don’t need to have every aspect of your professional future planned out to be successful, even when working in research. It is all but impossible to know exactly where your life will be in a few years, and your interests are likely to change and evolve as you become more aware of possibilities you never could have imagined.

Even after my experiences finishing my first year of college and working in the Burkepile and McCauley Labs, I still lack certainty on what I want to do after college or study for the next three years. But for now, I’m enjoying working in research and being part of a team where we get to use our heads to collaborate and do something that feels like it matters.