What Is Undergraduate Research And Why Is It Important?

Students in class

Take a look around you and think of all the things that we have now that we didn’t a few years ago. What about a few decades ago? It’s amazing how much we have all gained through the hard work and clever thinking of others. But have you ever thought of how all of these things came to be? Who was responsible for the thinking that lead to our current understanding of everything around us? If you can’t already guess, I think the title of this article may give you a hint!

When you hear the word “research” what do you even think of anyway? Does your mind jump to Hollywood clips of white haired individuals holding glass filled with some brightly colored liquid? Or maybe you jump back to early high school, when you were tackling a research report with over thirty Chrome tabs open in the browser. Whether your idea of research in the stereotypical scientist, the report, or neither, I’m here to tell you why it’s so much more than that, and why you’re going to want to be a part of it.

Before coming to IU I didn’t know much of anything about research either. The thought of all this fancy equipment, people running around in lab coats and cutting edge research had always been this elusive activity, with only a few of the best minds tackling a problem. It had never quite occurred to me that I could be an integral, if not vital, part of the cycle. This is in stark contrast to now, where after an awkward meeting, a beginner phase, and a bit of hard work, research has become a large part of my life here at IU. In fact, I even stayed here over the summer to work as a research assistant full time.

Looking back, I wish I knew about the rich resources the campus had to offer: From scholarships, to job opportunities, to a rich networks of amazing people. So with all this being said, give me a minute to broaden your perspective on undergraduate research and why you should definitely consider it as a viable opportunity to spend your time.

What Is Undergraduate Research Anyway?

If you’re anything like I was, you probably don’t have a good grasp of what undergraduate research even is. Whether it is mad scientists in lab coats, or a philosopher in a cluttered office, let me be the first to tell you how varied the reality truly is from the popular perception. It’s hard to describe exactly what each experience will be as they are all fairly different from one another, but I can tell you this: for ten hours or more a week, I get to do what I would never get to otherwise have the opportunity with some of the coolest people (scientists are far from anti-social, many of these people have become my closest friends) in a field that I am passionate about.That last part is what I think is the most rewarding: You get to work on the very thing that you’re interested in, and you get to make it bigger and better. Every lab and experience will be completely different but that is what they all share. From psychology to business to geology (and pretty much any other area on campus) they all have research programs, and they all have a spot for you!

Why Should You Include Research In Your Undergraduate Career?

I can’t stress enough that everyone should consider applying, no matter what your background, or what you identify with. The only thing you need is curiosity and a willingness to learn and work, and everything else will fall into place from there. The people I know in research are about as diverse as any you’d meet around campus. You absolutely do not have to have your nose in a textbook 24/7 to be a part of it, I’ve met people from all walks of life who are united by a curiosity in their respective field, whether you’re involved in Greek life, the president of the cognitive science club, a martial artist, a dancer, an artist, or a business major – and those are just the people in my neuroscience lab!

Now you may be looking at your 18 credit hour schedule and thinking that you’re a little burnt out on this whole academia thing, and you’d rather spend those two hours watching the next episode of Game of Thrones. But there are many reasons why your time is well spent in the lab. First off, some majors on campus require research credits and getting into a lab is a great way to have more of a say so on what type of laboratory work you’d want to be a part of. In addition, there are other campus programs which offer scholarship money to those who are involved. But what about after all this university business? Think about your post-graduation plans. Whether you are looking at grad school, industry, a medical school, or are unsure, research can be an integral aspect of your resume or CV, or letter of recommendation. This is for good reason, you will learn more from the lab then you ever thought possible, from solving problems, to building and fixing all sorts of things. You will usually be working with other people, and sometimes will have to learn cutting edge skills, whether it is intracranial animal surgery, to using a few thousand dollar machine. Not to mention growing your network by meeting others, and the great conversations you’ll have with your professors. Regardless of what you’re interested in doing, research will augment your chances for the better -hiring managers and school admission boards both know the creativity, skill, and teamwork needed to succeed in a lab.

Most important however, is that research changes the world for the better. There are few things that get me as motivated and make me feel good as knowing that what I am doing may lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s, or to help technology or medicine improve in for the people and in the areas that need it most.

Samwell Tarly surprised

How To Apply

So how do you get started? Luckily there are great resources around campus poised to help you out, such as:

·         Integrated Freshmen Learning Experience (IFLE), a summer program for freshman

·         STARS, a research organization designed to network you with other students involved and to support you along your research path

·         The Cox Scholars program

·         The IU URE Peer Mentors

But you don’t have to be affiliated with any of those to get involved, all you really need is an internet connection! First, you need to think about what kind of research that you may want to be a part of. This could be really easy if you know exactly what you want to be a part of, but if you’re like I was then you may not have the clearest idea. The best advice is to go online and look at the faculty profiles. This is typically a pictured list of all of the faculty that an institution has and the research associated with them, along with contact information. This will be key, because if one of their areas of interest jumps out at you, then you should send them an email. It can be fairly brief; you mainly want to state your name, and give a brief statement about being interested in working in the lab, asking if they’d be willing to meet. Yep, that simple! Now the most important thing to remember is that you need to show that you are excited about the topic, and wanting to learn more. Curiosity is a huge plus in any field, and the more it shows, the better. From this point, each lab is different, whether they want to see your designs, your resume, or nothing at all. Whatever happens, stay enthusiastic, because it’s about to get cool!

If, for whatever reason, you find out that you can’t join the lab, don’t worry. A lot of the time there will be too many students, or the professor is traveling. I was turned away from some of the first labs I wanted to join; it’s normal and you shouldn’t get discouraged. IU is a huge place which means there are other amazing labs to become a part of, all which can be your second home.

And that’s it! Whether you’re joining a lab for fun, wanting to go to graduate school, or somewhere in the middle, welcome to one of the best communities on campus. If you have questions or comments, be sure to get into contact with me, I’d love to share more and help you along the way.

Keiland Cooper
Keiland Cooper

CogSci Major. Napping Minor. Above all, I refuse to stop asking why.
There's a time and place for everything, and that place is college.
find out more at kwcooper.xyz

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