Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Getting Involved in Research: One Student's Path

In my experience, every department at Penn has a "go-to" person.  A person who knows all the ins and outs of the department,  ensures you graduate on time, and has seemingly magical scheduling abilities.  In the Materials Science & Engineering department (MSE), this person is Vicky Lee.  Along with being the my department's go-to, she acts like everyone's mom away from home: she is each student's biggest cheerleader and best source of candies and chocolates.  As a fledgling MSE student at the start of my sophomore year, it seemed only logical to go to her when I was considering getting involved in research; so one afternoon after my lectures ended, I walked upstairs to inquire about my options.  At the time, I hadn't met very many of the MSE professors, had no idea who was taking on undergraduates or if anyone would even be interested in a first semester sophomore.  Within a few seconds of hesitantly inquiring about potentially trying research, Vicky had already pulled up the list of courses I was taking on her computer and started scanning it for ideas.  She noticed I was registered in a robotics class in the mechanical engineering department and asked if I liked mechanical engineering in addition to materials science.  I still wasn't sure I did at the time, but said yes anyway.  She then excitedly told me to say no more, printed out my transcript, took my arm and marched me down the hall.  She stopped in front of an open door and said "Dan this is Dagny, she is a sophomore, likes mechanical engineering and wants to try research".  She then walked me inside, turned around on her heel and left me stunned and in the office of a professor I had never seen.  After a few minutes of chatting with Dan, I realized that Vicky couldn't have put me in a better office, and wound up being the first student he hired to work in his lab.  It has been over two years since Vicky walked me into Dan's office, and I still feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity that I was presented with.

Admittedly, the route I took to get involved in research is a bit unconventional.  From what I have gathered, most students send out somewhere between a one and twenty emails to professors and hope that someone replies favorably.  While I can't deny that people have found that method successful, I think a lot of students underestimate the power of casually asking around in person.

Want to talk more about research with Dagny? Get in touch with all blog writers at, please reference the blog post title in your e-mail so we get you the right person!

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