Stoking Your Inquisitive Fires | By Shrida Sahadevan

The University of Alberta’s Undergraduate Research Initiative will be presenting its Festival of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities (FURCA) November 3rd – 14th.  To celebrate the integral role research plays in postsecondary education, The Wanderer will be featuring the stories of talented undergraduates, sharing the meaning and impact of their experiences researching.

All well-written research articles, well-supported research posters, and well-explained research presentations begin with the simplest research question. Most people are aware of the general format to approaching these research questions. Graduate students, post-doctorate fellows, and research supervisors all take part in this amazing process  or rather cycle  of questioning, investigating and concluding. What most undergraduates do not realize is that they can get involved with this enthralling process. All it takes is a bit of courage, a bit of initiative, and a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity.

I began my research journey right at the beginning of my undergraduate degree. In my first introductory psychology course during my first semester, I was fascinated by the concept of memory. How do we remember certain items? How do we remember certain associations we make on a daily basis? How can we enhance our memory? As a neuroscience honours student, I was even more curious about the neural mechanisms behind memory. As curious as I was, I did not know what to do with this natural fascination. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity, but did not know how.

What I did know was that my honours program required me to conduct a research project in my final year. Naturally, I found more information about this program and various researchers who took on students in their labs for these projects. I contacted a few researchers who focused on various aspects of memory. I did not ask them for a specific role within their lab; rather, I expressed that I was simply interested in joining their lab in any capacity. I read a few papers published by these researchers, which can usually be found on their lab or personal webpages, to familiarize myself with their work. As I had expected, I did not receive a reply from many of the researchers, but only a few. I met with these researchers, toured their labs, and briefly discussed my interests, skills, and what I hoped to get out of the experience.

After deliberation, I was keenly interested to be involved in the Computational Memory Lab of Dr. Jeremy Caplan (Member of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience & Mental Health Institute, University of Alberta). I started off as a lab volunteer in November 2011, three months into my first semester of university, assisting a graduate student, Yvonne Chen, with her data collection.  At the same time, I also familiarized myself with various research methods in this domain, including electroencephalography (EEG). I continued to volunteer in the lab until the beginning of my second year, when I enrolled in a research opportunity program course, PSYCO 299.  This three credit (no-grade) course, lasting the full academic year, allows students to engage in original research methods, discussion and the research environment within the department. I was given the opportunity to take on an individual project investigating the relationship between mathematical memory models and memory strategies. In collaboration with Yvonne Chen & Dr. Caplan, I was able to partake in the conception of this study right from its onset. I was involved with the background and literature review, and designed and implemented the methods to test our hypothesis.

After the preliminary background review of the existing literature and designing of the initial experiment, I wanted to continue with this project in the summer following my second year. The Undergraduate Research Initiative’s Undergraduate Researcher Stipend afforded me the amazing opportunity to continue research in the summer.  I implemented my study focusing on the popular memory strategy, Peg List Method, and its resemblance to the positional-coding memory model. My project was chosen as one of many to receive the stipend. What this stipend allowed me to do was not only conduct a research experiment, collect data and analyze  it allowed me to flourish as a creative thinker, inquisitive mind, and natural learner.

After that summer, I completed two independent study courses in my third year; now I am working on my honours thesis project. In the past three years, I have been able to  independently conduct three separate, but related, experiments. I have grown as a researcher, and been able to flourish in other ways. Because I became involved in research very early in my undergraduate career, research has been an integral part of my university life thus far. Research, for me, has definitely been an experience to remember.

Many people are lost in their first year of university; the transition from high school can be steep for some students. There are students who adjust well, while others do not. Students find various ways of easing their transition into such an energetic, busy, and different life in university. Research was my way of easing into university. I learned to be more confident in my thoughts and opinions, became more outgoing and forward, and learned to communicate more efficiently. I collaborated with people of various educational backgrounds and discovered how to efficiently solve various problems. All in all, undergraduate research has allowed me to stoke my inquisitive fire and thus, made me a stronger person.

It is never too early or too late to be involved with undergraduate research. An amazing resource on the campus for getting started or involved with research is the Undergraduate Research Initiative. University of Alberta is a leading university in research and it would be a shame not to take part in what this institution has to offer!

Illustration by Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod

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