Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Undergraduate research: A question can take you anywhere

This week’s guest post is from Crystal Snyder, Coordinator of the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI). The URI is kicking off its fall awareness campaign, and will be holding a number of events over the next two weeks. Be sure to check out the URI website and Facebook page for updates! 

When a plant gets sick, does it make its own medicine?

This was the seemingly innocuous question that changed the entire course of my career. It was the fall of 2001, and I was in my second year of studying biochemistry on my way to fulfilling a lifelong dream of going to veterinary school. I knew almost nothing about research, less about plants, and I’d barely scraped through organic chemistry with a C+ average. On paper, I seemed like an unlikely fit for a research project with a natural products chemist studying the medicinal properties of stressed-out plants. But my professor (let's call him Dr. K), had a way of talking about his work that made me want to be a part of it. He was an amazing teacher, and the opportunity to work with him was enough to convince me to take a chance on this project I knew nothing about.

On reflection, I suppose that was lesson #1 in undergraduate research: Find a mentor, not just a project.

Dr. K wasn’t concerned about my struggles with organic chemistry or my lack of experience with plants. I was one of four undergraduate students in his lab that semester, and none of us were poster-children for academic perfection. He assured us that in research, GPA is rarely the strongest predictor of success. He welcomed us into the lab and treated us like partners, each equally invested in the outcome of our work. That immediately made the experience unlike anything I had encountered in the classroom. There was no longer anyone dictating what we had to learn. We were free to start asking our own questions. There was nothing to memorize; everything we learned in the lab, we applied immediately. Chemistry didn't seem so hard when we started using it to solve our own research problems. Sometimes our experiments worked, sometimes they didn't, but that wasn't failure – it was research.

That's lesson #2: In research, you never have all the answers. The real discovery is finding the right questions.

I stayed in Dr. K's lab for another year and a half, working with different students on several projects. I've heard that some researchers discourage undergrads from staying in the same lab for too long, preferring instead that they test the waters elsewhere and explore a variety of interests. I took a slightly different path, participating in a program in which I got to interview researchers and write profiles of their work. I wrote about researchers from every discipline, from education to sociology to astrophysics. It made me realize just how diverse the opportunities were, and how few of my career options I’d actually explored. It made me think twice about vet school. I started considering graduate school. Or journalism. Or maybe even both.

Lesson #3: Trust your curiosity, and don't be afraid to change directions if the right opportunity presents itself.

For me, the right opportunity came in the form of a job that was never posted, which I've since learned is not uncommon in research (yet another reason to get to know a lot of different researchers!). A professor I knew was moving to the University of Alberta, and I'd heard he might be hiring for his new lab. Still undecided about grad school, I sent him an email inquiring about a job. He hired me as a technician, and I ended up working for him for the next eight years. In that time, I traveled to some fun places, met a lot of interesting people, and eventually got around to pursuing a Master's degree. But after almost a decade of doing research, I realized that what I really wanted to do was help others experience the thrill of discovery for themselves. I thought I might go back to writing about research, finding ways to help researchers strip away their jargon and share their passions with students and the broader community.

I never would have guessed that my desire to make research more accessible would lead me to my current position with the Undergraduate Research Initiative. I'm pretty sure that "Undergraduate Research Coordinator" never appeared on any of the career planning materials I'd seen about what you can do with a science degree, and it certainly never occurred to me as a possibility when Dr K first convinced me to take a chance on plant research. And yet everything I've learned since – in the lab and out – made this the right fit at the right time. As author Douglas Adams once wrote, "I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be."

And that was the most valuable lesson of all: In research, a question can take you anywhere.

Where will yours lead you?