This past week the Swarthmore national scientific research organization, Sigma Xi, showcased student summer research in the Science Center Commons Lounge. Each student researcher had a chance to exhibit their research to interested passersby.
For many of the student researchers, getting involved in research was just a matter of reaching out and talking to professors. In some cases, a student can inadvertently get introduced to research, through just a casual conversation with their professor. Such was the case for Miranda Amilcar ’20, who did research with the biology department.
“I developed a pretty close relationship with Mrs. Val, first semester, because she was my lab instructor for Bio 1. And just in a really general conversation, she was asking me what I was going to do over the summer and I told her that I didn’t really have any idea yet. So she basically hurries me to look into research, and potentially [do] research with her. And once I looked into what she was doing, I saw that I was interested in it. And I … wrote a proposal, got the acceptance, and that’s how I got into it,” said Amilcar.
It is not uncommon for students to be more direct with their professors when talking about research opportunities.
“The professors are pretty friendly, so it makes it fairly easy to go up and talk to them. Not all of them can do research with each person, but it’s not too hard to find someone,” said Sam Sokota ’18.
According to the students interviewed, professors are welcoming and deeply interested in their field of academia.
“You can just go talk to the professors. Obviously they love talking about their own research. They will be very happy to talk to you about anything, so just be proactive on that,” said Bill Huang ’19.
One salient concern for students navigating research opportunities is finding a professor with matching interests. According to Huang, a good place to start is the departmental panels, where professors showcase their ongoing research or research interests.
“Each department has these set dates [for] panels, where they have professors and people who have done research to talk about their experience … you can attend one of those panels, and then email or go talk to the professor afterward, and then see if you are actually interested in the research and what kind of requirements you might want to have,” said Huang, “Essentially, the application process is pretty straightforward — it’s just go talk to the professors. Usually it’s very personalized. Usually a professor will say, ‘Okay, write me a paragraph or two about why you want to attend.’”
Student research is also available from other organizations; it does not necessarily have to be conducted at or sponsored by Swarthmore. Jennifer Lin ’18 pursued this method.
“The way I got into it was not very traditional. I pretty much got into the medical school at the University of Rochester on their early program, and they were like, ‘If you are interested in doing this research internship this summer, just let us know,’” Lin said.
The student researchers at the showcase were enthusiastic about the expertise and guidance of the professors. Sokota spoke about his research experience under the guidance of computer science professor Bryce Wiedenbeck.
“His primary field is computational game theory, which is very much related to deviation payoff, which is a term he actually coined … it is definitely something he has got a lot of experience,” Sokota said.
The sentiment is shared by Huang, who was doing research in neural networks.
“Our professor was super helpful. This is his field: theoretical neuroscience. We had countless difficulties along the way when we were modeling this, when we were doing simulations and all that. And he basically knows everything… It’s not like he solved [our problem], obviously he doesn’t know the answer before we do things, but he can kind of foresee where things might go wrong,” said Huang.
Having a professor’s help, however, does not mean research is an easy task. According to Huang, some students will often have to do background research before starting their project. For others, a degree of motivation is needed to push through the work.
“I think you definitely … have to be self motivated … to just kind of push yourself. [Because] a lot of days are just you alone in a room, trying to build some stuff. So sometimes it can be rough when things aren’t going well. It is really rewarding when they do,” said engineering student Kira Emmons ’20.
Research is hard work and a relatively big time commitment. The experience is, however, accessible for students who want to take up the task.