The Same Effects of Undergraduate Research, 44 Years Apart
Akanksha Atrey UA ’18 and Jim Stellar
I first met AA at a ceremony where she won a Woman in Technology Award and we discovered in casual conversation that we both went into undergraduate research (her now, me 44 years ago) in fields where we had a professor father already there. This blog is about our comparative story. AA, you go first.
Having a professor father one is introduced to many ideas about education. At an early age, I knew higher education was something I wanted to pursue and the best way to prepare myself for it was to do undergraduate research. Hence, when I told my academic advisor regarding my future plans, he immediately directed me to a professor’s, Dr. M, lab. Although her willingness to work with me motivated me, I was unsure and felt as if I was jumping the gun. Eventually, after Dr. M convinced me it was possible, I was ready to start my research effort the following semester!
My father was not in my university as was yours, but he did loom large in my thinking. I did not realize how large until a professor at my small college approached me after class and asked why I seemed so excited in his class on behavioral neuroscience but so bored in the premed meetings. He suggested that as a biology major I might be on the wrong career track with medicine and should try working in a research lab that summer of my junior-senior year. I did and it changed my life. I did not apply to medical schools, though I signed up for and took the MCAT test with the other premeds (I came that close). Instead I applied to and got into a PhD program at U. Pennsylvania where I got my PhD in 1976, well before you were born. Yet I find our experiences to be parallel. So, let’s take the next step and say how we each adapted to the lab.
Doing research in computational topology, I did not have much of a physical lab experience like you. For me, this adaptation included working off site and visiting my professor one to two times a week to review my progress, go over bugs and issues and talk about future plans. Since this was during the semester, I treated this project as another class. However, like other classes, not having specified deadlines was definitely different. This turned out to be the most difficult idea for me to overcome while doing research. What was your experience like?
I loved the laboratory from the first day, just like my old professor thought I might. I knew it had changed me and that I had some explaining to do to my mother. You see she always wanted me to be a physician, I think because she always wanted one close at hand and what better way to do that than have one in the family. She did not need another neuroscientist. She had one of them already in my father. Yet when I told her, she said something that made a huge impression on me. She said, with her mother’s power of observation, that she had never seen me as passionate about anything before except surfing. That was not only her blessing, not only did it clear her voice for my career out of my head that she had long (perhaps unknowingly) implanted, but she linked my passion right to where it needed to be and I committed to applying to graduate school, not medical school.
It is mindboggling how it all appears to be so fated when you look back at it. This entire experience also, for me at least, created a sense of confidence that allowed me to look at my future with a more directed insight. I was all over the place in terms of career plans starting out as a freshman. Even when I starting doing research, I was experimenting with whether it is something I could possibly carry on in the future through graduate school. After a year of it and after presenting it at the biggest celebration of women in computing, The Grace Hopper Celebration, and a similar regional version, New York Celebration, it allowed me to feel a lot more confident about my future plans and the work I was doing. I felt as if I was not just another student doing a degree but that I could go out and make a difference through my work. Getting a chance to apply my technical knowledge to a real world issue really built an assurance in me that graduate school is the right path for me!
I too got a great deal of confidence from working at the lab that summer and I extended it back on campus of my small college with the support of this professor. He was not in my field and so my experiment did not work in college, but it did in graduate school and it was my first publication. I did not attend a conference like you, but I did grow a great deal and went to conferences in graduate school. I decided that if I ever had a laboratory of my own, I would encourage students to have that experience with me. From 1978 to 2008 at Harvard University and then at Northeastern University I did that with perhaps a hundred or so students going through the laboratory to graduate and medical schools. I stopped the laboratory when I moved to Queens College, CUNY in 2008, but at least now I have this blog.
We think the key attribute to working in a laboratory is confidence. This is more than a soft skill of working in a team or the development of more knowledge in the field. It is being comfortable with that knowledge, manipulating it, talking to others about it, starting to even contribute a little to the development of the field in a small way like a doctoral student might. It represents the integration of the two mental worlds of which we often write about in this blog and it is a powerful experience for the student leading to much more effective studies in college and enhanced success after graduation (at least for one of us so far).