Learn Something Original | By Sydney Rudko

What do you want to learn? Whether it’s about textiles for your future career in haute couture, swimming with fish, analyzing skull fragments, scuba diving, or perfecting the perfect guitar solo, you should dictate what you want to learn, and that opportunity is within your grasp! It’s all very simple: get involved in undergraduate research!

The Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI) bridges the gap between what you want to learn, and actually doing it. The URI was established to connect students in all faculties with research positions. Through an online website accessible through Moodle, one-on-one consultation, researcher in residence meet ‘n greets, and interactive presentations, the URI wants to help you find your passion! The URI even offers a research stipend to support undergraduate research.

I had the opportunity to sit down with three of the URI stipend award winners from last year to chat about their summer research. I sat down with Gavin Goodwin, a fourth year studying music, whose research project was creating a conductor’s score for a popular saxophone concerto. I also chatted with Balázs Gyenes, a second year Engineering Physics student working on creating sulfurized iron pyrite nanostructured films. Lastly, I talked with Sarah Haefliger, a fourth year studying honors Infection and Immunity, who worked with the oncolytic virus, Reovirus.

How did you find your position?

Sometimes first year students think doing research early in their undergraduate career is impossible. It’s true that it can be challenging to find a position as a first year, or in any year, but this certainly doesn’t mean these positions don’t exist, and more importantly it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and find one! Balázs had just finished his first year when he conducted a project in engineering, so I asked him how he found his position and what he recommends for anyone who is looking for a position. He found his position through talking to one of his professors.  She mentioned that her husband was looking for a first year student to do a project with, and he jumped on this opportunity.  Balázs recommends looking for positions early and talking to your professors. He thinks “the ones that seem like they care about what they’re doing, and those that are actually good teachers,” are the best professors to talk to.

How do you feel your research experience benefited you?

Even if your project doesn’t result in a published paper, or even a desire to do more research, the experience will benefit you as an undergraduate. Balázs really appreciated his lab’s environment and felt this benefitted him as an undergrad. He said he really appreciated his lab mates, and liked mentorship he received from his supervisor. He even described them as “pals,” and said he really enjoyed talking about research and science with his lab mates. Sarah also expressed an appreciation for the mentorship she received in her lab, describing her supervisor as “a really good teacher” and “very encouraging.”  There is a lot to be learned from the experiences of others in a research environment. Not only will you learn about the field you’re studying, but they will likely pass on words of wisdom about classes to take, programs you might be interested in, and even career advice! However, close mentorship isn’t always an integral part of the research experience. Gavin worked very independently on creating a composer’s score for a saxophone concerto. His supervisor was on sabbatical during the summer. Therefore, Gavin worked alone through most of his project, but liked this experience. He felt that the independent research helped him understand his own goals and helped him “learn more about himself in the time management department.”

Will you pursue another research project in the future, either as an undergraduate or as a graduate degree?

Independent research is addictive. The ability to pursue a project that you find personally interesting is an empowering feeling, and can aid you in pursuing goals independently in the future. Sarah enjoyed the problem solving aspect of her project working on Reovirus. She found that the occasional frustration of doing experiments made it “so exciting when things finally [did] work out!” Sarah is continuing on in research by taking a 499 research project. This is a full year course in which you conduct independent research in a lab of your choice. Her summer research experience made her reconsider if graduate studies are the right fit for her, and going forward she is weighing her options and considering a Masters program in Public Health.

Gavin won’t be pursuing research as an undergraduate again, but will be as a graduate student. He is currently preparing for auditions for Masters degree programs in applied music at a number of universities in the United States.

Balázs looks forward to doing more research in the future when he “feels like he [can] contribute more intellectually” to the project. He felt that, as a first year, there was little he could contribute to the project, and yet this is a feeling shared by any who perform research. The desire to move a project forward but feeling as though you don’t have the knowledge or the skill is something all who do research (at any level!) feel; however, once a problem is solved the sense of accomplishment is immense.  He may have a while to go before graduation, but he has a very comprehensive plan for continuing his undergraduate research. His lab supervisor suggested to him that he shouldn’t do the same kind of research twice, so this summer he plans on working in industry, and after his third year hopes to find a position in an optics lab. He said his research experience “didn’t make him not want to do [research]” in the future.

I sincerely wish all three of these truly brilliant individuals the best of luck in their endeavors. By taking the risk of trying something new, by engaging actively in their education, and by developing new skills, these three will absolutely succeed. This isn’t necessarily due to the research they’ve conducted, but their willingness to explore new avenues creates innovation in their lives that will ultimately lead them to success.

“I don’t pretend to know what I want to do until I’ve tried it.”

This is something Balázs said to me during our interview, and I couldn’t help but marvel at how eloquently that sums up the experience of undergraduate research. The value of undergraduate research isn’t in the research; the value is in what you take away from your project. I’m not talking about a lab technique, or the perfect saxophone concerto, I’m talking about what you learn about yourself, and your needs as an individual. So why not take a little time and invest in yourself by investigating undergraduate research?

This week is the Undergraduate Research Initiative’s awareness week! You’ve likely seen the posters around campus or the table in SUB.  If after reading this article you are yourself interested in seeking out a research position I suggest visiting the URI office, located on the second floor of SUB, or visiting them online at www.uri.ualberta.ca.


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