In my address, I will discuss four lessons I have learned from undergraduate research. First, I learned about the importance of mentorship. Second, I learned that while every research experience may not be inspirational, something valuable can be learned from each experience. Third, just because I did not like something the first time, does not mean that I did not like it. Fourth, it is a small world, and undergraduate research experiences will continue to benefit you.
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One of the most important decisions that an undergraduate student can make is the decision to engage in scholarly activity. “Scholarly activity” can be broadly described to encompass research, scholarship, and creative activity, though, here, the focus will be upon the terminology I use, which is research.
Students often pursue research to obtain an addition to a resume, to gain specific experience and to learn more about a chosen field. Whatever the reason that research is pursued, there are gains that occur far beyond these anticipated benefits, and, often are not apparent until down a career pathway.
The immediate benefits of research for a student, are the opportunity to learn more about a field; to strengthen an application for graduate school, professional school, or entry into the job market; providing experience; and the opportunity for strong, informative letters of reference. A research mentor and perhaps a research group help to boost knowledge. Students learn to ask the right questions and to make professional presentations. Many students have the opportunity to work on teams, and begin to understand advanced (meaning beyond the classroom) concepts in a chosen field. Students read literature in a field and may have been engaged in writing; both of these experiences provide students with a better understanding of the writing styles and literature content important to a field. Students may interact with graduate students and other undergraduate students who will be their colleagues of the future – ones with whom a common bond is shared – the research experience – forming a bond upon which students may draw well into the future, provided contact is maintained.
Undergraduate research was absolutely critical in shaping my career and I continue to reap benefits from these now long ago experiences. I must note, however, that my initial interest in the sciences was sparked by several great math and science teachers, particularly, my high school chemistry teacher. His high expectations, dry sense of humor, and ability to show the intrigue of chemistry made the sciences quite appealing. That, combined with a laboratory accident where a classroom demonstration resulted in a hole in the ceiling, were particularly memorable and inspirational. My interest in science was reinforced by my high school microbiology teacher, who transformed his classroom into a research-like environment. So, indeed, it was the classroom experience enhanced with exposure to research that were important to setting the foundation for my career.
For college, I selected a university that awarded me a very unique scholarship package, which included placement in a research laboratory my freshman year. I continued with research throughout my undergraduate studies. I did research in microbiology, in physics, and in chemistry in a variety of laboratories. The most impactful research experiences I had, however, were the ones that I pursued each summer for three years at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Department of Energy laboratory located in the State of Washington, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. From these experiences, I learned several very important lessons.
First, I learned about the importance of mentorship.
At the national laboratory, I had a terrific mentor who enabled me to be independent, challenged me, and had me try different projects that were key to helping me figure out my career direction. My mentor allowed me to explore concepts and to figure out solutions to challenging problems on my own, regardless of the damage left by my attempts toward progress. My advisor was instrumental in helping me identify suitable graduate programs and research mentor possibilities that would match my interests and put me on a graduate trajectory leading toward job prospects. He was a terrific sounding board to me throughout my graduate studies and much of my early career. He provided me with much insight about the field. He took on a very critical role as a reference and support when my doctoral advisor passed away suddenly at a very young age just six months after I completed my doctoral studies. My mentor has continued to be supportive of me throughout my career. It has been almost twenty-five years since I was an intern, but my 32-weeks of research over a three-year period resulted in a lifelong mentor and friend who has been instrumental to my career direction.
My mentor has continued to serve as a role model to me of good mentorship. Often, mentorship is considered to be a sharing of knowledge between someone more experienced with someone less experienced. However, it can be (and should be) so much more than this. Imparting of wisdom and serving as a long-term “trusted counselor or guide,” or perhaps “coach” makes a valuable mentor. A synonym for mentor is shepherd, which conveys so much more than the sharing of knowledge. The term shepherd is defined by Webster’s dictionary in example phrases such as “to tend as a shepherd” and “to guide or guard in the manner of a shepherd.” “Tend”, can be defined as “to move, direct, or develop one’s course in a particular direction,” “to stand by in readiness to prevent mischance, “to apply oneself to the care of,” “to cultivate,” “to foster.” Just like a shepherd, who values each one of his or her sheep, a good mentor values each one of his or her mentees, no matter how many mentees they have had, or how far the mentees may have “strayed,” or progressed in the field, or changed career directions, or how many years have passed. The role can be so much more than the sharing of knowledge. My research mentor empowered me. I was motivated, realistically confident (which I consider to be having a positive attitude grounded in reality!), and ready to tackle challenges that came my way.
The role of mentee is just as important as the role of mentor in the mentor-mentee relationship. Student researchers should value their mentors, and maintain contact with them, regardless of the student’s career direction. Take advantage of the opportunity to develop lasting relationships with their mentors, gain from their wisdom, not just from their knowledge. Ask questions, listen, and learn. Consider mentors not only as short-term resources, but also as long-term guides or coaches.
A second lesson I learned was that while every research experience may not be inspirational, something valuable can be learned from each experience.
Separating caffeine from coffees and teas was not exactly my cup of tea (pardon the pun). However, this experience reinforced to me that I did not want such a job; I needed to go to graduate school.
From the summer I spent building and repairing a mass spectrometer, I quickly learned that I really missed what I had done the prior summer – research in theoretical physical chemistry and computational chemistry. However, the patience and mechanical skills that I acquired became very useful to me in later years, when I needed to repair or enhance large-scale computer servers and build computer clusters, with hundreds of small parts scattered throughout my laboratory. The skills that I learned have now been passed down to generations of my students.
A third lesson I learned was that just because I did not like something the first time, does not mean that I did not like it.
One of my least favorite classes as an undergraduate student was a computer science class on Fortran. I will not go into the details here about the class, but I can tell you that I had soured on the subject and was quite convinced that I would never pursue a computing-focused career. Imagine my surprise, and, to some degree, frustration, when I arrived to my first internship experience, and my project was entirely computer-based! During the summer after my sophomore year, I became proficient in Fortran, though opted for other projects over the course of the next two years. It was during the summer after my senior year, that I migrated fully to computational chemistry, pursuing both my last internship in this area, as well as my graduate studies (where I spent just over four years programming massive Fortran codes). Indeed, again, my undergraduate research was instrumental.
So, it is important to never let one less-than-favorable experience color one’s future.
A final lesson is that it is a small world, and undergraduate research experiences will continue to benefit you.
Throughout a career, there are gains that continue to occur from undergraduate experiences because of the field that was pursued, the people who were worked with, and the place where the research was conducted. An intern will always be associated with these experiences, and it is important to rely upon these connections throughout a career. Still, many years later, PNNL is a common association that I have with many scientists. We talk about times we may (or may not) have overlapped at the laboratory, I spend time with PNNL scientists at meetings, with whom I have developed friendships, and have been invited to conference symposia that are heavily populated with scientists from PNNL. We have written proposals together. One of the PNNL scientists nominated me to be a Fellow of the American Physical Society last year. I am chair of one of their advisory boards. I have sent my graduate students there for visits and for a postdoctoral fellowship. I went with one of the laboratory directors last year to Capital Hill.
With the fellow students in my research group from long ago, overall, we have maintained at least occasional contact, though we have dispersed to different careers across the globe. We occasionally collaborate, send each other students and help with employment opportunities, and meet at conferences.
My undergraduate research experiences not only aided my career trajectory, but they also continue to enrich my career. I encourage all students to pursue internship opportunities.