Researching Independently

The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone about to get into research is to be prepared to work independently. This was a personal takeaway from the graduate student panel that spoke to interns a few weeks ago. Panelists said a difficult part of transitioning to graduate school was learning to operate with minimal levels of supervision and direct instruction. There’s more expectation to create your own research ideas and experiments, while being able to figure out how to make them all come to fruition. Interns aren’t necessarily expected to operate at this level of independence, but I would say that an undergraduate research experience is the best time to prepare.

This past week has given me a taste of what it’s like to work independently. My mentor was at a conference on the other side of the country to present his research. At first, I was concerned, unsure of what I would do if I faced a major road block. Although I was already accustomed to spending most of my time working alone, not being able to meet face to face at all seemed like it would be a major limitation. This prompted me to plan out the week meticulously, so I could still be as productive as possible.

I started off my week by beginning to write a report on my project in journal format. To begin such a task, I read up on relevant theory through a photonics textbook and other contemporary journal articles. This extra reading allowed me to generate informative figures and summarize the background behind my project. Being able to explain something through writing greatly enhanced my understanding of the topic. I then spent the next few days in the laboratory, both taking measurements, and watching others to see how they handled problems. Finally, when my mentor returned on Friday, we had perhaps our most insightful meeting so far. The extensive preparation I had done on my own, such as reading theory, writing the journal, and troubleshooting problems in the lab helped me make the most of the meeting. We discussed everything I learned, the problems I encountered, and what the remaining weeks of the internship would look like. I now feel that I’ve fine tuned my research work flow and I’m ready to finish the internship strong.

Research First Impressions

Since starting my academic career at Santa Barbara City College, I’ve been absolutely engrossed in what I’m learning. I gained facility with undergraduate mathematics and physics through countless hours of practice and hard work. I enjoyed the challenges I faced, but my method of learning often consisted of attempting problems that had been solved before, comparing my solution to a known solution. I’ve also always been fascinated with the idea of working on the frontiers of human knowledge. That’s what research means to me. Solving problems that have never been solved before. Naturally, I looked forward to one day having the opportunity to get involved with undergraduate research myself, but that day seemed far away as a community college student.

Today, I’ve accomplished this goal by completing my third week of the AIM Photonics Future Leaders program. I was initially a bit intimidated applying to the program, but I shouldn’t have been. The program provides a great introduction to research in a field that’s a perfect fit for my academic interests of optics, wave physics and electrical engineering. Research, for the most part, is what I expected it would be. The challenges you face are open ended and provide a great opportunity to benefit both human society, as well as the scientific world. My research project involves studying optical switches with great potential to lower the energy consumption in data centers. One aspect of the Future Leaders program that I particularly like so far is the emphasis on why the research matters, and how to communicate its importance. Every week, interns give a brief presentation of their research, fit for a general audience. I feel that these weekly presentations are sharpening my speaking skills in a way I’ve never experienced in a traditional classroom environment.

Although undergraduate research is a lot different than undergraduate coursework, one thing they both have in common is they require you to be ready to learn, and learn a lot. Early on, my mentor introduced me to textbooks and journal articles explaining the science behind the technology I’d be working with. The complexity of the texts is much greater than the undergraduate material I’m used to, so I’m honing my reading skills. In the lab, I’m working extensively with fiber optic cables and powerful lasers. I read about both in previous classes, but without the level of hands-on experience I’m getting here. I’m eager to see what I can accomplish this summer and I’m hoping to continue pursuing research after I start school at UCLA this fall.