Monday, February 21, 2011

Student Spotlight: Undergraduate Research

Hi everyone! My name is Michelle Calabrese and I’m a junior in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. While everyone talks about how it’s so easy to get involved with undergraduate research, I feel that few people are actually interested in pursuing careers in research. Well if you ARE one of those interested in research, I guess you’re lucky to be reading this blog! Recently, I’ve been in pursuit of finding a research position at a school other than Penn. Last year, I was guaranteed a research position and my own project as part of the Rachleff Scholars program. This year, I wanted to branch out and apply to REU programs and research jobs at the national labs. For those of you that don’t know, REU stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates, which are summer research projects at different major universities funded by the National Science Foundation.

I began my quest for a research job starting in the fall. I went on the NSF website and located virtually every REU in relation to chemical engineering, energy research, and environmental sustainability. After compiling my list, I also researched all of the National Labs so I could choose two to apply to through the Department of Energy. I met with an advisor and narrowed my search down to 15 REU sites (which my advisor thought was a ridiculously high number, but I wanted to be sure I’d get in!). I started writing all of my research statements, essays, etc. and telling each place why their specific REU program would be a great fit for me.

Ten applications into my process (some applications aren’t due until mid March, so I hadn’t finished those), I received an offer from one of my top five REU sites. My problem was that I had to respond within two weeks of my offer, and wouldn’t hear from all of my other sites before that. After going into panic mode (you would think I would be less stressed, rather than more stressed, about having a job) and calling my mother on speed dial about every five minutes, I began contacting my top sites and seeing if they could release their decisions early (sadly most of them couldn’t). I checked the Department of Energy website, as working at one of the National Labs was my top choice, and to my dismay I saw that I might not hear about my decision until April 1st.

Luckily, I didn’t give up and went specifically to my top choice lab’s website. This lab specifically allowed students to contact a mentor directly. If the mentor agreed, you would be accepted into the program. Naturally, I started compiling a list of researchers that I might want to work with. While it was a long shot, I figured sending out emails wouldn’t hurt. Even if someone did respond, I thought that I might be too late to meet my other deadline.

I found one scientist in fuel cell research that I particularly wanted to work with. I composed an email trying to sell myself, had my parents proofread it, and sent it off to my potential mentor. I meant to do the same for the others mentors as well, but did not have time to do enough background research that day.

While I assumed I would not receive a response, I came back home one morning from a Relay for Life conference to see an email from my potential mentor. While I assumed he would say he could not host a student, I opened my email to a two-sentence response that he would be happy to host me for the summer. I was overjoyed at the response and glad that all of my hard work had paid off. So now here I sit with a great job for the summer and hopefully, a great experience to prepare me more before applying to grad school.

Moral of the story: 1) while many Penn engineers love industry, a career in research can be great too! 2) don’t be afraid to go after the job you want, and 3) persistence is key!

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