By Jen Ren, Editor-in-Chief
To an undiscerning eye, research is one of those things that just sounds boring. It seems like something to do to kill time on an I-Day, or performing menial tasks like data entry to pad a college résumé. And for some, those may be true. But just like its name implies, researching for a research opportunity that you’ll enjoy involves lots of searching and re-searching.
First things come first: finding the right advisor is instrumental in accomplishing a project worthy of publication and something that involves more than pipetting and making fly food. I’ve been lucky (or unlucky) enough to have both extremes of these kinds of advisors. During my junior year, I pursued a research project in the department of psychology at Northwestern, and I came with a very definite and outlined project in mind to execute. My advisor had worked with IMSA students on numerous occasions in the past, and so I thought it best to find an experienced professor who had collaborated with high school students and the SIR program. Though I had a lot of independence to design, create, and execute my own project, it was often difficult to contact my advisor and receive clear feedback on the direction my project was taking. I would frequent her office with questions regarding my tests or my surveys or my data only to find it vacant. On occasion, though, when I did manage to catch her with a moment to speak, she was very willing to discuss our project. So willing that, frequently, I could barely make out all the information and psychology jargon she spewed into the air. As I scrambled to take note of what she said, of this theory and that hypothesis, my project twisted and turned and morphed to try and implement every component she brought up. And through all these disconnected suggestions, communication had been imprecise. In the end, I did manage to put forth an answer to the question I began with, but the journey to discover it had its shares of bumps along the way.
This summer, I decided to try my hand again at research, this time in the department of physiology at Northwestern. In contrast with my SIR advisor, my summer research advisor had only recently established his lab, much less work with high school students. Once I had sent out my email enquiring after a summer research position, I found an ambiguous response in my inbox requesting an interview. I knew nothing of what would happen at the interview, and so I began prepping by reviewing numerous papers my advisor (then my interviewee) had published. I scoured the internet to refresh my memory of everything biology and to discover much more about electrophysiology. I was anxious, not knowing what to expect especially after my school year SIR. As I soon found out, he and his lab had a completely different atmosphere than I anticipated. I had worried that I didn’t have enough direction, enough background knowledge as I had for my other project, but the small lab was more than accommodating. My first day, they invited me to attend a presentation by a speaker from England, which I found very informative. The graduate students and post-doc were especially friendly and enthusiastic to show me around, very different than the detached relations I had in my previous lab. I got to know them not only as brainy intellects, but also as a soccer fanatic, a charming Puerto Rican, a terrible jokester, a coffee addict, and all of them as my fellow foodies. But of course, we still managed to get work done. I looked forward to my hour-long commutes on the Metra to arrive early at the lab. And at the end of the day, I’d tinker away in the lab until the very last moment before I scrambled to catch the late shuttle. I always found something new to occupy my time and discover new problems to solve. Though I had much to learn, the relaxed setting of the lab made research feel a lot less like work and more like fun. For me, I had found a lab with which I clicked and where I absolutely loved to be. The research I did was fun, hands-on, engaging, and personalized. What else could I ask for?
One way to determine whether an advisor seems appropriate for your objectives is to ask opinions from your fellow IMSA students who have walked that path before. Here, I’ve provided my own experiences in the hopes that it may help you, but I can’t speak for on-campus research opportunities. From what I’ve heard my peers reflect, however, it can definitely provide a meaningful experience. IMSA has fantastic faculty and resources like any university, so if getting up early on I-Days isn’t your thing, consider talking to someone about his or her on-campus SIR. But of course, everyone’s perspectives differ and are measured on varying scales, so take each recommendation with a grain of salt. If lab research is not your thing, consider interning with a company.
The summer before junior year, I interned at a biotech company. Luckily for me, it was very small and I had the opportunity to act as a “jack-of-all-trades”; I followed bovine tissue samples from receiving it at the slaughterhouse to processing it to packaging it off to customers. For me, working at a biotech company yielded a lot of one-on-one attention, experience in business components and administration, and overall a fantastic opportunity to learn. Apart from internships, consider the option of independent study for senior year! Just like the SIR program, independent study is open to all disciplines, including the sciences. Don’t be shy to approach your teachers with questions; they want you to succeed and can be your biggest advocate.
In the end, finding an advisor right for you is largely a game of luck. Whether you hope for an off-campus SIR, on-campus SIR, internship, or independent study, opportunities abound. Regardless of which one you pick, be sure to go in with an open mind and a willingness to work; you never know what treasures you’ll find!