Why Undergraduate Research Matters?
The college experience is one of the most intriguing stages in our lives. This will be an early opportunity where undergraduates or graduates will be allowed to experience a microscopic version of society. All of us begin our journey in college as uncertain undergraduates trying to sieve out through plethora of organizations and activities, a perfect brew for self-discovery and character development. These experiences will have a lasting impression on each individual and are critical in determining one’s future career. I am fortunate to be exposed to these experiences, partly from a short yet fulfilling period of an undergraduate research. In this article, I would like to share my experience and opinions with regards to undergraduate research and reasons why every undergraduate should be participating in one.
If there is one cool thing about studying abroad is that you are given a full-frontal access of world-class facilities, be mentored by highly intellectual researchers and being able to attend eye-opening symposiums. I was admitted into one of the top public schools in the United States which boasts arrays of intriguing research opportunities. Driven by my initial curiosity for hands-on laboratory experience, I applied to several professors to join their research groups and managed to be admitted into one of the more influential group. By actively participating in their research, I gained knowledge and more importantly, gained confidence to discuss hands-on about topics with some of the most brilliant people that I have ever met, I definitely did not expect this before joining the research program.
Another important impact of my undergraduate research experience was the renewed appreciation of professionalism in a workplace. For most of undergraduates, working in a research can be a daunting experience even for things that may be considered menial such as reading scientific literatures and performing basic procedures such as quality assurance or laboratory maintenance for some fields. I am fortunate to have a mentor who understands that ultimately a successful and fulfilling research experience is an example of healthy professional interactions between undergraduate students, their mentors and the Principal Investigator (PI) or Professor-In-Charge. He always emphasized that what separates truly successful professionals with sloppy workers is the attention to details and discipline, which I found extremely true in most situations. This experience trained me to become a more disciplined individual that values commitment and real contributions.
In close addition to that, I would like to say that research is a very time consuming and, for the most part, a rigorous endeavor. It involves significant reconsideration, an abstract thinking as well as a necessary innovations. Thus, it requires determination and an inexhaustible curiosity to undergo an experiment. A sizeable portion of undergraduate research also trains students to handle immediate calls or to deliver impromptu elevator speeches about your research to professors after classes or at department events to get noticed. Strong determination, street-smarts as well as undying curiosity are certainly rewarding assets obtained during the process that will prove useful in any future career you are setting your sights to.
I also learnt that social intricacies play a huge role in the workplace. My first year as undergraduate researcher was super exciting. However, I found out later that our research has met a dead end. In the process, our small division was getting a lot of heat from my PI and other division over budgetary priorities that soured the working atmosphere. This was an eye-opening experience for idealistic students such as myself that ultimately research group was funded based not solely on scientific endeavor and it is a logical financial decision to discontinue an unprofitable research program. Unfortunately, the conflict of vision and mission between the leader of the research and its idealistic members such as mine can extinguish the genuine respect of any student for their respective fields of study.
My participation in research also helped me determining the type of leader I would like to be. I can readily admit that I honed my social skills during my undergraduate research. I utilized my experiences in interacting, negotiating and managing people heavily in setting up my company policies especially dealing with the issues of employees. These experiences also prepare me in understanding potential office politics and enable me to view problems from different perspectives. I learnt that a great leader should lead by example, should be credible when they are voicing their opinions and should be able to give appreciation where it is due.
For those of you who are really interested in joining a research group, I strongly advise that you should go for tours of the laboratories or offices to get a feel of what it feels like inside one. I would also recommend you to speak to a few graduate students in the group and even converse with several professors about their laboratory principles before any of you decide to embark in undergraduate research or commit into a research group. It is really important that you join a group of which vision and working culture is similar to yours and not just because their research is ‘hype’ or ‘cool’. I understand and sympathize with undergraduate researchers because they do not have the same level of experience and confidence as students or post-graduates do. Thus, they need a more thorough guidance when they first step up working in the laboratory.
All in all, my short but fulfilling experience as undergraduate researcher helps nurture my characters even outside the scientific field. It shaped most of my college experience and through it, I was able to meet with several brilliant scientists from all over the world. I also feel fortunate because I was able to use my knowledge and understanding of science. As an undergraduate, being trusted to handle few million-dollar instruments is obviously a major confidence boost personally. I would strongly recommend students to take the opportunity to experience any research opportunities should they able to have one. I truly believe it will be a rewarding journey for the takers; something that we will treasure for the rest of our lives.
Photo is credited to author
Raymond Biondy Henka earned both his M.Sc in Technological Management in 2013 and B.Sc in Chemistry with minor in Material Science Engineering in 2012 from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He currently is the CEO of PT. Kharisma Semesta Hijau specializing in heavy machineries and several warehouse complexes in Jambi Province, Indonesia. Previously, he worked in Deloitte Ltd as associate consultant and journalist for the Strait Times Singapore during his stay in Singapore. An avid reader, his interest lies mainly in music, management system, investment and entrepreneurship. A passionate vocalist and writer, he enjoys good jamming session and composing lyrics with various musician friends during his down time.
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