A personal anecdote touching upon themes of personal growth, academic excellence, and ingenuity. And how I scored an undergraduate research position in the best lab at UC Santa Barbara.
“How do you land a position in a research lab? Magical beans? Fairy dust? Dashing good looks?” While I possess none of three unattainable goods listed above, I do accredit my current research position at top tier research institution UC Santa Barbara to a little lesson I learned in high school drama class: The Importance of Being Earnest.
Yes, yes. I will recall story that landed me my glamorous gig within the Zok Group, but first I would like to give context to my path less traveled by. I would have not seized the wonderful opportunities at UC Santa Barbara and previously if it wasn’t for my valuable mentors.
Mentors share invaluable pieces of wisdom. Whether they are the faculty advisors, graduate students, or members of the graduating senior class, mentors will help you see what they couldn’t and push you to take advantage of the opportunities they didn’t. I have been very fortunate to have mentors that have taught me that while you cannot change the cards you were dealt, you can control how you play the hand. I encourage all students who are seeking research positions to find people with more experience than you whom you can connect with on a personal and professional level. These people, who often hang in the background, will open your eyes to new perspectives, write you stellar letters of recommendation, and share intimate experiences of overcoming adversities. Mentors are the manure of personal growth. While you have already planted the spores, they will help nurture the seedlings.
I conducted research in my first lab through the Summer Institute of Mathematics and Science (SIMS). Although I participated in an equally rigorous engineering preparatory internship in high school called ESP, SIMS channeled the freshman college experience by creating opportunities and conditioning us to seize them so that we could set ourselves apart at the highest level academically.
We interns participated in eye-opening professional development situations where we were forced (for our own good) to connect with principle investigators of labs over casual dinner conversations. It was called Dinner with Faculty, and it was brutal. It’s not everyday that you get to sit next to National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient Arthur Gossard while chowing down on some non-vegetarian lasagna.
Contrary to popular belief, academic excellence is not limited to a high GPA but also encompasses your ability to communicate your ideas effectively and present yourself in an academically stimulating manner. Instead of asking questions like, “hey professor, what kind of research are you involved in?” Do your homework beforehand and instead say something like, “Hello professor, I understand that your group explores the functions of nanoparticles for targeted cancer therapy, and I am curious to know about the process behind designing experiments. What roles do graduate and undergraduate students play throughout the process?” Although you may not have a crystal clear understanding of what he or she is working on, asking informative questions will demonstrate your interest in their work and your motivation to learn more. Then, follow-up afterwards in order to inquire about possible lab positions.
Mel, you still haven’t told us how you became part of a research group under a department that is world renowned for Materials Science! Well my curious and patient reader, I will now. See, success comes when arduous preparation meets luck, and boy was I lucky.
During the weeks following SIMS, my mind was already set on searching for opportunities that would allow me to experience the same personal and professional growth. I compiled a list of research experiences for undergraduates, commonly referred to as REUs. They all wanted the same thing,
“We would like to award internships to motivated individuals with strong academic background (GPA of 3.5 or higher recommend) and interest in conducting research in the fields of engineering, math, or hard science. Application requires transcripts, a resume, statement of purpose, and 1-2 letters of recommendation.”
My top choice on my short list was the Early Undergraduate Research Experience and Knowledge Acquisition internship (EUREKA!) And I got it. After going through an extensive application and interview process, I was awarded funding to pursue research in any lab that would be happy to accept me in.
Although my plan initially was to continue working in the biochemistry lab I had joined late winter quarter, a quick turn of events allowed me to change labs and begin working for a new graduate student mentor. It was a bright and sunny afternoon and UCSB’s 7th preliminary round of Grad Slams was in full swing. I had planned beforehand to attend the rounds with graduate students from the Materials Department. I did not plan on talking to any of them. However, after listening to a particular graduate student present on his current research: Designing New Materials for Jet Engines, I had an epiphany. I was so captivated that this kind of research was being done on campus that I sprung out of my seat after the competition ended and approached the graduate student.
“Hello, my name is Melissa Morales and I am a first year chemical engineering student … can I have a tour of your lab?”
I was so excited about this research that I whipped out my “talking to professionals” skill I developed during SIMS and eventually gained a new mentor out of it. After our initial meeting, I followed up with an e-mail and was graciously given a tour of the lab and time in the office where now current graduate student mentor shared photos of samples from an experiment he was working on. Laborious preparation truly met luck.
Now, let’s recap…
- I would have not thrived in environments like ESP, SIMS, or EUREKA if it were not for the wonderful mentors that guided me along the way.
- There is more to academic excellence than a high GPA. Having a strong network of knowledgeable individuals can help you complete unimaginable feats.
- When opportunities come a’ knocking, carpe diem. Be present and seize them.
- Success is when preparation meets luck.
- Be earnest in your pursuits and genuine with your endeavors. Work hard and connect with those around you because your network will help you get ahead, or refer you to someone that can. Be kind to others, show gratitude, and follow-up with those initial encounters. People will not care about what you have to say until you demonstrate how much you care about them. And lastly, contact the graduate students before the principle investigators.