How finding opportunities for undergrad research can help shape your future
This summer I got the opportunity to participate in a REU with UC Merced. You may be wondering, “What is a REU?” It is an acronym that stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates. REU's allow undergraduate students to learn about the graduate experience and encourage them to pursue higher education. Before this experience, I used to have the erroneous idea that you needed to be a four-year university student, or a grad student, to engage in research. But that is not correct AT ALL. There are many resources available for community college students!
There are many internship opportunities in national laboratories, private companies, and universities that you can apply for regardless of your major. The program I entered was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has as its mission to increase diversity in STEM and help students from underrepresented backgrounds to find research opportunities. The NSF funds several REU sites located in multiple host institutions. On the REU site, students have the opportunity to participate in a research project and work with faculty and graduate mentors.
*Note: The NSF only gives funding to citizens or permanent residents of the United States.
The application process consisted of writing a statement of interest, providing my resume, my unofficial college transcripts, and contact information from a recommender. In the statement of purpose, I had to explain my interest in research, the members of the faculty I would like to work with, and my future academic and career objectives. In addition, I reached out to an instructor, with whom I had taken classes before and had a good relation, to ask to be my recommender.
I participated in the Center for Cellular and Biomolecular Machines (CCBM) Summer Internship Program (C-SIP) at UC Merced. This program is held specifically for non-UC Merced students. And, as the center’s name suggests, it focuses on research in biophysics, biochemistry & bioengineering. Due to the current public health situation, my internship was remote and all of the activities were adapted to a virtual format. It lasted 9 weeks, from the first week of June until the last week of July, ending in a research presentation at UC Merced’s Annual Summer Research Symposium.
The C-SIP program is a cohort of a bigger institution at UC Merced, the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute (SURI). SURI includes other UC Merced student research programs that include both humanities and STEM areas. Throughout these 9 weeks, students not only dedicate their time to their research project. There are several enrichment activities that help prepare students for the future. Every week, there is a theme that will be covered in workshops and for all the participating programs. There are weekly graduate school prep, development series, and “within your field” workshops.
Graduate school prep workshops: covered graduate admissions, searching for, and choosing grad schools, writing applications statements, and how graduate school funding works. As a community college student, these may not seem so helpful in the immediate future, but they are good things to know.
Development series workshops: focused on creating a CV, creating an elevator pitch, networking, the importance of research, how to communicate research, and tips on conferences. These were more centered on professional development skills.
“Within your field” workshops: included how to read journal articles, write an abstract, research writing, and how to build a poster. These were the most useful regarding the research projects and preparing for the end-of-summer symposium.
For my project, I was paired with a professor and a graduate student at the university. We had regular meetings each week to talk about the progress of the research project. Due to the online nature of the internship, I did not have the opportunity to go to the lab and perform experiments with the equipment. My part of the project was focused on doing data analysis with the data that my graduate mentor gathered in the lab. I also performed literature reviews on the subject of the project. Throughout the progress of the summer, I learned to use OriginLab, a data analysis software, as well as RefWorks, a reference management tool.
My final presentation was on “Novel Photoluminescent Ligands And Their Potential Application In Nano-Assembled Active Materials”. Briefly explained, nano-assembled active materials are materials at a nanoscale that can modify their initial state as a response to external stimuli, such as molecules. They have several applications in a variety of areas, but the goal of this project was for drug delivery. The expected outcomes would be that these nano-assembled active materials (which can be modified to have a shell form) would be a more efficient way to deliver medication to patients since it would be impermeable, have targeted delivery, and can be triggered to rupture from external stimuli to release the encapsulated drug. The focus of the project was to find molecules that would be good candidates for forming these shells.
Overall, this summer research program was a great experience. I had the opportunity to work in an environment that otherwise I would have had to wait until entering graduate school. They gave me resources on what further steps to take in my educational path, something that as a first-generation college student was especially helpful. Even though my ideal experience would have been conducting experiments in the lab, I enjoyed the process and learned a lot along the way. I learned to use data analyzing software, how to write an abstract and did my first ever individual symposium presentation.
I must admit, not all the time I felt motivated. There were sometimes that I felt stressed, or that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. But there was always a network of people that was there to help, whether it was my mentors or the program coordinators. All the obstacles I may have faced during the summer didn’t matter the day of the presentation. The pride that I felt after concluding my presentation reminded me why I wanted to get into the program in the first place. I feel satisfied with my efforts and outcomes this summer. As for my future goals, it did reinforce my desire to do research as a career path. If there is something that did make me change in perspective is that I would like to shift my area of study into something not-so-biological.
If you have ever felt interested in conducting research, I highly recommend that you give it a try. It gives students the opportunity to partake in things never done before, you become a very knowledgeable person in this niche area that only a few people know of. Research internships also help open the doors to the next generation of scientists: for those who are sure of their path, for those who are doubtful, and for those who had never considered it before.
And remember, even if you enter a research program and end up not having a good experience, you at least learned from it. Take it as an opportunity to explore new paths!
Tips for applying to summer research opportunities:
Start searching during the fall semester, check the requirements and specifics about the program. Many summer programs have application deadlines during the winter (December-February).
You don’t necessarily have to apply for a program directly related to your major. Don’t limit yourself. This is the opportunity to explore other fields of study.
Choose the programs you like the most and begin the application.
When writing your statement of interest, make sure that you have an idea of what the mission of the program is. Take some time to search up the faculty and their ongoing projects, and decide which ones you would like to work with.
Apply to more than one. The exact number will depend on you, your time commitment to fill applications, the number of letters of recommendation you want to ask for, and other personal factors. This gives you more chances to be accepted into a program.
Most programs require letters of recommendation from faculty within the field of study. Ask for these letters ahead of time; they will be glad to help. Make sure to let them know at least the basic information about the programs you want to participate in and your motivation. Also, once the application process is over, keep your recommenders updated with your outcomes.
Websites to find internships:
UC Merced C-SIP: https://ccbm.ucmerced.edu/education/undergraduate/CSIP
National science foundation: https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.jsp
Pathways to science: https://www.pathwaystoscience.org/
Reu finder (for community college students): https://reufinder.com/programs-for-community-college-students/
NASA Internships: https://intern.nasa.gov/
UC Summer Research Opportunities: https://www.csusm.edu/otres/summerprograms/ucsummeropps.pdf