Finding your way into and around a lab

Oct 25, 2012   //   by Anna Zaniewski   //   Blog, Compass People  //  No Comments

I started doing physics research as an undergraduate at West Virginia University. I was fortunate enough to be recruited to a plasma physics lab, where I worked on space plasma physics. I spent one summer at Los Alamos National Lab, and another summer at the Maria Mitchel Observatory, where I worked on an astronomy project. These experiences gave me a deepened understanding of physics, and helped to propel me towards grad school at Berkeley. Though the research path I chose in grad school, nanoscale physics, is different from my undergrad research projects, I appreciate having tried different kinds of research. Physics is such a basic science that a lot of the physics that applies to space plasmas also applies to nanoscale objects.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a physics student is doing physics research. Oftentimes, crazy stuff that you learn in classes only makes sense for the first time when encountered in the lab. Participating in research can help you decide if you want to go to grad school, and if you do, the research experience will help you to have a stronger application. In order to find research projects as an undergrad, however, you will have to be comfortable being a self advocate.

The best way of starting the process of finding a research position is to talk to as many professors and grad students as you can. Go to your professors’ and GSIs’ office hours, and after getting your homework questions answered, ask about their research. If you know any other grad students, start conversations with them about research. You can also go talk to professors you don’t have a class with- most will make an appointment to talk with you and will be happy to talk about the research in their labs. Experimentalists in particular often need students to help out on small projects, but if you have coding skills then you might also have luck approaching the theorists. Don’t be discouraged if you email professors and don’t get a response- there could be many reasons why you don’t get an email reply. Talking with professors in person is often more productive.

Have an open mind about the kind of research projects you’d be willing to take on, since it can be hard to know what kind of research you like until you have a bit more experience.

Expect that when you’re working on your projects in the lab that you will work most closely with a grad student, but don’t be afraid to talk to the research group professor, and participate in group meetings. Building a good relationship with your research professor is important. Another important skill for undergraduate researchers to have is the willingness to ask questions. Grad students expect that their undergrad students will have questions, and the only way to grow as a researcher is to ask those questions. And if you make mistakes, remember that it’s ok. Everybody does. Sometimes good science can come from “mistakes”.

Finally, like Compass, consider the research group a community. Try to get to know this lab community, and take your place as a young researcher.

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