Part 1: What is research, and how do I get involved?
“Scientific research.” “Knowledge discovery.” “Novel contributions to society.” The first time I heard these phrases, I didn’t know what they meant. In many ways, I am still learning what they mean. My journey to discovering scientific research was highly circuitous, and I almost missed that opportunity outright. This is partly due to my non-traditional background, where I became a first-generation college student only after finding that my first career as a pastry chef was not a sustainable option for my future. Beyond these circumstances however, the mystery surrounding what scientific research actually is and the process by which one can get involved was a substantial barrier of entry. With no familial examples from which I might gain insight, I was curious about the term “research,” but I knew nothing about what it entailed. This brings me to the purpose of this and subsequent posts. I want to share as much as I can, in very practical terms, about how anyone can get involved in scientific research. By “scientific research”, I mean applying the research process to make new discoveries in science. I will choose topics specifically intended to help college undergraduates, high school students, and even working professionals looking to start a new career. In essence, these insights are for anyone who isn’t already well-versed in the world of research for knowledge discovery. I hope that by sharing my own discovery process, I can help show you that scientific research is available and accessible for anyone.
To start with, you might wonder why you should consider scientific research in the first place. Before I talk about that, I want to first define what research even is. As simple as it sounds, coming up with a definition is no simple task since research encompasses many different components. At its heart, research is the process by which people discover new things they didn’t already know about. Moving to a new city and finding the fastest travel route to school is research. Studying molecular biology to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 is research. By reading this article, you are researching what research is. In other words, research seeks to find answers to questions. Importantly, research also teaches us how to ask the right questions. In short, research endeavors to find solutions to problems. Every person does some research in their everyday life, much like planning that best route to school. Everyone struggles with problems in life and we all do our best to find solutions. Research is essentially this same process but with formal tools and methods to help people become more effective at problem solving.
So, why would someone want to engage in this process? If you have ever wanted to change the world, find an interesting job, help other people, or even learn how to navigate a new city, becoming a researcher is one of the best ways to make that possible. Research teaches you how to think critically and gives you tools to be a highly effective problem-solver. Daily life is full of unavoidable problems, so why not be as competent as possible in discovering how to solve them? This is just one practical reason. Another compelling aspect of engaging in research is how fascinating it is when used for making scientific discoveries. Scientific research gives you the opportunity to systematically explore the world around you and to discover brand new things. Not many other areas in life can offer this kind of exciting opportunity. The first time I discovered something brand new, I was in a college class finding viruses no one had ever found before. I sequenced the viruses’ DNA and recorded their genetic information for future scientists to make use of — it was a thrilling experience.
Yet another aspect of research that is perhaps my favorite part is that it inevitably shows you opportunities you didn’t even know existed. The entire winding research process (one that I hope to help make a little less confusing for beginners) has a way of showing you new possibilities that you likely would never have discovered otherwise. So whether you want to be more effective at navigating life, or you haven’t decided what you want to do as a career, or you are simply curious to know more about the world around you, there are endless reasons why learning research skills is an excellent idea. There are other countless gems that research has to offer that I will touch on as we go. One thing is certain: there is no substitute for research — you have to try it out to know how you’ll feel about it and reap its rewards.
Choosing a research topic
I recently spoke to a class of incoming freshmen about what research is and the types of work I am interested in. A student raised a great question that I want to address here. They asked, what if you are intrigued by the idea of scientific research, but you don’t know what type of research you want to do? Maybe you are just beginning college or are just finishing high school, and you haven’t decided what you want to do as a career. Perhaps you are well into a career and would like to try something new. I would argue this in fact makes you an excellent candidate to give research a try. Something I wish I had known earlier in life is that it’s actually a great thing to not always know what you want to do. That means you are open to possibilities! Particularly in scientific research, there is no pressure to have things figured out because you are on a path to discovering the unknown. It is expected that there will be uncertainty, confusion and surprises along the way.
That being said, I would encourage you to take a step back from the pressure of figuring out your college major, your future career, and all those other big decisions. Instead, think about things you like to do and things that you are curious about. Do you like birds? What kind of birds? What is it about birds that draws you in? Maybe you like building cities out of Lego's. Or maybe you are fascinated by how we haven’t encountered alien life in our massive cosmos. Maybe, like me, you enjoy baking. The process of baking is in fact that of chemistry. Learning how molecules interact helped me learn how to manipulate ingredients to make my cakes fluffy and flavorful. My point is, if you are human, then you likely are interested in something. From there, it’s not too difficult to think of research areas that could be intriguing to explore. In pursuing research, the problem you are likely to experience won’t be finding an interesting area to investigate, but how to select just one or two to focus on!
Finding a research adviser
Let’s say you’ve chosen an area you are interested in investigating. Now what? This brings us to the first concrete step on how to get started in scientific research, that of finding a research adviser. What is a research adviser? The answer to that can vary extensively, but for now I will say that your research adviser is the person that enables you to conduct scientific research. They will guide you in choosing good problems to solve, give you direction on how to go about solving them, and will give you the resources you’ll need to do so. They should not be confused with an academic adviser, who you likely did not choose for yourself. An academic adviser may assist you in matters such as choosing classes or accessing financial aid. This is very different from a research adviser, without whom you cannot experience the full research process.
It turns out that starting this process is fairly simple. All you really need to do is ask some professors if you can get involved in their research. It really is that simple. Generally speaking, when people see you trying to learn and improve your life, they are eager to help you. This is one of those gems I referenced that the research process taught me. In the case of research, approaching a professor who conducts research and asking them to help you get started is the first step. It’s totally okay if you are new to the school and don’t know who all the professors are. Every department at a university has a website listing their professors, and often these professors have their own separate website talking about their work. Start on the web page in a department you might be interested in. Go down the list of professors in that department and look up the research that they each do. This will take some time. Not all websites will make it obvious what work each professor does, and not all professors conduct research (some focus only on teaching and service activities, which are important to the functioning of the department and university).
Sometimes, you will need to search online for the name of the professor and the name of their school to find articles they may have written. Skimming these papers can give you a great idea about the kind of work they do. Make a short list of a few professors whose work seems particularly interesting to you. When you approach a professor to ask them about getting started in research, you can mention what about their work is especially interesting to you. This will show them your initiative and serious intent. I recommend sending an email explaining your interest in their research, mentioning what you liked about their work, and finally requesting a time to meet. As strange as a “cold email” approach might sound, it really does work. Of course, not every professor will get back to you right away so you may need to follow up. Don’t be afraid to be persistent. Professors are generally very busy people, but they are happy to meet new, talented students to work with. It’s a good idea to speak with at least a couple of different professors since everyone has a different style of mentoring their students. Finding the right person to work with is probably the most important part of the process. If you can find a person that you work well with, the actual work itself will follow much more easily and enjoyably.
While an important criteria for your decision is the types of research each professor does, there are other factors that can help you find the right adviser. With a quick online search, you can find which professors have won any teaching awards. That may sound unrelated, but people with teaching awards often have excellent skills in mentoring and interacting with students, which is extremely helpful in an adviser role. Another consideration is whether the professor has experience working at other jobs outside academia, or has other projects or startups that may be interesting to you, which again you can discover through a web search. Yet another possibility is to approach any teaching instructors that you enjoyed learning from to ask for their recommendations on good research adviser candidates. I was fortunate enough to get a suggestion from my undergraduate biology teacher about a potential research adviser in the computer science department who ended up being my undergraduate research adviser. In the end, this strategy was the most helpful in my search for an adviser.
Continue to seek out mentors
Even after you find a research adviser, always keep seeking out more mentors that can help guide you and give you further advice. In addition to considering my suggestions, please also look up what advice others have offered on the subject of research and discovery. In this spirit, for example, I highly recommend reading a Richard Hamming essay entitled “You and Your Research.”
Another good read is Ron Azuma’s advice entitled “So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!” Learning how to manage your time is also a critical skill that you should master, and on that topic I strongly recommend watching Randy Pausch’s “Time Management” video. This video is something I continually re-watch myself every year for a refresher!
This first step of looking up information on different professors is important and shouldn’t be rushed. Take your time and do your homework on each professor that you plan to approach. Be confident in that you are offering them the opportunity to work with someone who is courageously taking the initiative to explore an entirely new world! The professor-student relationship in research is very beneficial to both parties; neither of you does well without the other. There are many different facets to this relationship, some of which I plan to explore in my next post. I am looking forward to sharing with you more aspects of scientific research!