As the spring semester kicks into gear, IMSA students are already looking forward to the opportunities that next school year brings. In this article, we’ll take a look at one of the biggest co-curricular choices IMSA students face: Student Inquiry and Research, or SIR. After a year of Wednesdays full of Navigation and homework, junior year is when I(nquiry) Days can actually live up to their name. And we’re not leaving you out, juniors — if you want an SIR, there’s still plenty of time to find one for senior year.
I’d like to note that an SIR isn’t the only way to take advantage of IMSA’s opportunities. If you want to explore a general topic but IMSA doesn’t have a class in it, consider doing an Independent Study. If you want to work in industry rather than professional research, look into internships at 1871 in Chicago. For those who are reasonably sure that they want an SIR, this article is for you.
First, you have to think about what you want and what’s available. Review the SIR section in the 2019-2020 Course Catalog to get an idea of the on-campus offerings coming up in the next year. Would one of these programs interest you, or do you want something different?
If you want something different, start thinking about different research areas that interest you. And you’re not limited to the natural sciences. Computer science, history, and linguistics SIRs are not unheard of, although it’s true that physics, chemistry, and biology SIRs are probably the most common.
Although off-campus SIRs are more time-consuming, they’re also much more versatile. You can study almost anything that a willing, Chicago-area professor also studies. And, remember to stay flexible. You might want to study hydroponic phytoremediation with the foremost phytoremediation professor in Chicagoland, but if he doesn’t want to mentor a high school student, you won’t be able to fulfill that dream. If you have a very specific interest, you might end up with an SIR that’s similar to but not exactly what you wanted, and that’s okay. With enough time, you’ll almost certainly learn to enjoy it.
Another question to ask yourself is: do you want a partner? Many students pair up for their SIR, and it’s not a bad option, especially if you don’t want to write emails, read papers, and do the same sample for the third time because you messed it up — twice — alone (if your SIR involves lab work, that last one will 100% happen). But you’ll also have to find a person willing to go into the same research area that you want to, which may prevent you from doing a topic as specific as you’d like.
While you don’t have to actively do anything about SIR quite yet, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for incoming emails from the SIR department. If you have any questions, you can reach out to any of the heads — Don, Dr. DeVol, and Dr. Smith. Note here that Dr. Smith is the one non-STEM professor of the three, so if your desired research area isn’t STEM, he’s probably the one to talk to.
When it’s time to formally register for an SIR, there will be a few steps to take. For on-campus SIRs, each process will be unique, although most processes involve brief applications. Talk to the SIR mentors (IMSA faculty) to find out what their requirements are.
For off-campus SIRs, the process is more complicated. First, you’ll have to find yourself a potential research mentor. The Internet is your friend, and so is looking through specific universities’ websites for their professors. To find someone who’s had contact with IMSA before, you can look through recent IMSAloquium brochures and find someone who’s mentored in the past, or you can talk to the SIR heads about mentors they know of in your field. When writing emails to potential mentors, you may face rejection, but don’t take it to heart. Researchers are busy people, and the fact is that many of them don’t have time for a high school student. Besides, you’ll have a better time with a mentor who’s willing to take time out of their day to work with you than one who’s not.
Once you find someone who’s willing, congratulations, you have an SIR! Though it can be intimidating, doing undergraduate-level research as a high school student is an amazing experience. Good luck and happy SIR-hunting!