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Faccenda: Nothing to lose, everything to gain in undergraduate research

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To many, the idea of undergraduate research is daunting. Some of us don’t even know what’s going on in our classes. How are we supposed to add anything new to the academic conversation in a given field when we’re not even fluent in the language?

Well, as it turns out, anyone can develop the skills to become a valuable researcher. It just takes a little drive, curiosity and perhaps most importantly, persistence.

This summer, I worked in a geochemistry lab at the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. Not only did I learn more in one summer than I have in some full-semester classes, but I also became more confident as a student and gained insight into the inner workings of academia. After speaking to other student researchers from a variety of departments, I was pleased to find that many had similar experiences.

While I believe that many Case Western Reserve University students could benefit from working as researchers, I think it is especially important to encourage those who are struggling academically to investigate research opportunities. This proposal might sound paradoxical. In my experience, however, learning how to undertake complicated lab procedures helped reassure me of my academic abilities.

Like plenty of students, I had trouble adjusting to the difficulty of CWRU’s science and math classes in my first year. My confidence took a big hit and I nearly gave up on science entirely. When one of my geology professors informed me of an open position with a research group on campus, I was equally excited and terrified. I didn’t think I could possibly have anything of value to add to the group.

My first few sessions at the lab were rough. The lab work was physically difficult, requiring me to work under a microscope with easily breakable, very expensive ceramic pieces. I barely understood the science behind the experiments, and I had nothing to contribute to conversations about “lanthanum chromate insulators” and “electron microprobe analysis”.

I kept at it, though, and as I got better at my job, I began to feel a powerful rush of confidence. The more complicated lab procedures I learned and meaty scientific papers I read and understood, the more assured I became in my abilities.

Stepping outside the classroom made me realize that there is so much more to academia than exams and homework problems. I stopped thinking of myself as a bad student, and instead started to see myself as a good researcher. My confidence issues disappeared, and as a result, my performance in classes skyrocketed. I believe that for students who are stuck in a self-confidence rut, research can be an extremely valuable tool for changing their mindset, which is the first step to better scholastic achievement.

If you’re struggling with classes, participating in research can add a whole new dimension to your studies. Some may think that spending hours in a lab or writing academic papers cuts into valuable study time, but in reality, the time spent doing research can supplement your courses like nothing else.

The nature of academic investigation forces students to learn how to apply concepts from the classroom and understand how they work in a much broader and deeper context.

For example, I have a friend who works with cardiac research. As he started to get more into his work, he was surprised to learn that many of his lab techniques relied heavily on concepts learned in Physics II, such as voltage, electric flux and basic circuitry. He found that since he was looking at these concepts through the lens of biomedical work (his true passion), they made much more sense to him than they ever had in Physics II lab. He was able to see how understanding these concepts allowed him to achieve his experimental objectives, and this experience ended up being much more engaging and rewarding than merely taking notes or stumbling through a confusing lab period.

 

Classes at CWRU can be tough, but they aren’t impossible. For students who find themselves drowning in a swamp of low morale and seemingly nonsensical classes, undergraduate research might just be the perfect solution.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to professors in your department and seek out opportunities.

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Case Western Reserve University's independent student news source
Faccenda: Nothing to lose, everything to gain in undergraduate research