Advice to the Stressed Undergrad

I’m sure you’re all thinking at this point, “wow, summer turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.” I know that I am, because I thought I would have a lot more time to balance work and life in the midst of my summer research program. Consequently, you probably feel the stress from the upcoming due dates, final presentations, and rapidly approaching academic year. And just to add to the pressure, you still need to eat and sleep (hopefully well), and socialize. You may find yourself beginning to just go through the motions of your summer without actually taking in moments and enjoying it since there is so much to do. Here, I give a bit of advice to help you with some of these struggles.

 

Plan your meals

Making your own (healthy) food is probably one of the most difficult tasks to do when you first start the summer on your own. Oftentimes, it will seem impossible to make a new lunch every day before you go into lab, since making food is so time consuming. It is very easy to fall into the trap of eating out all the time. Not only is this unhealthy, it is extremely expensive and you will drain your summer stipend within a few weeks. Instead, you should focus on doing meal prep. Do some research on how long certain foods last in the fridge once opened. Then, choose foods that last a while and make a meal out of it. You can make this meal in bulk on a Sunday and it will last you for the week. This way, you don’t have to chop up that celery seven times a week, or wash that same dish fifty times. Even better, you can prep something healthy and change it up from week to week.

 

Become Immersed

You may feel that you should’ve published some groundbreaking result that created a paradigm shift in your field by the end of your undergraduate career. I’m exaggerating of course, but I’m sure you feel pressure to get good results in lab to prove your competence. I can assure you that you shouldn’t feel this way at all. Instead, you should let go of all your stresses and become immersed in your research. What exactly do I mean by “immersed?” I mean to appreciate the research for what it is, and allow the knowledge and exploration to take you through a journey free of the fear of not publishing, getting results, etc. Once you become immersed, you will begin to take initiative, show true interest, and hunger to answer questions through your experiments. Your principal investigator and lab mates will appreciate your devotion to lab through immersion more than anything— even if you aren’t pulling stellar results—because it shows you have the tools to be a great researcher.

 

Balancing research, school, and life can seem like an impossible task. However, it is not. It just requires motivation, perseverance, and sometimes a bit of guidance. The advice I have to offer for may not solve all of your problems, but it should serve as a good starting point.

 

 

Looking Towards the Future

As I continue working on my research project this summer I’ve realized that in order to keep things in perspective that it is important that I think and plan about my future. By planning out my future I make it easier for myself to understand what I need to do now in order to accomplish them. I look forward towards my plans, ranging from short term goals for the next few years, to long term goals further down the line. It is through the completion of different short term goals that I accomplish medium term goals, which eventually lead to my long-term goals. While the picture painted by short-term goals is often clear, the specifics on longer-term goals can often be less distinct, and thus it is important to be flexible in order to shift either your approach to a goal, or to shift the goal itself. My short term goals often are designed in mind to help me accomplish more medium and long term goals and thus I often find it helpful to consider these further goals first. Overall, I would say that I’ve known my overall career goal for a long time; that is, to go into academia, and thus, only my short term goals change significantly while my long term goals have remained relatively constant.  In the short term, I hope to continue working in my current lab during this academic year, and I plan on continuing working in labs for the rest of my undergraduate career. Through work in labs, as well as my continued studies, I hope to be able to identify the field of physics that I am most interested in by the end of my undergraduate studies, and to choose which graduate schools to apply based on the field I want to work in. Later down the line, after I get my Ph.D., I hope to continue in academia by working as a postdoctoral researcher and by eventually becoming a professor, and it is with this overall plan that I hope to accomplish my goal of working in academia.

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!
https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.jsp

Chemistry- Why do we use protection?

I learned to put on my seat belt every time I step into a car, not because it gets me from point A to point B, but because it eliminates some of the risks of being in moving vehicle and sharing the roads with hundreds of crazy drivers. The same principle applies to house insurance, phone cases, door locks, sunscreen, and protecting groups that are used in chemistry. In the past few months, I have been working to develop a protecting technique for a versatile compound known as maleimide. Like a car, maleimide has the potential to do many great things, such as enhancing the development of organic synthesis imaging technology, biomaterials and drug delivery systems. However, unlike how a car can operate without seat belts, maleimide cannot function without a protecting group because it can be too reactive or toxic for direct use in cells or polymerizations. Our research group aims to design a “seat belt” for maleinide so that it can perform its job without damaging other compounds.

Research requires collaboration, innovation, and a lot of patience; all of which I have learned to value these past couple of months. I hope to be able to contribute to the ever-expanding knowledge of science. So much of science is known, but so much more is not.

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.