Seeking experiential education in undergraduate research after transferring to a new university

August 8, 2022 at 10:59 AM
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Seeking experiential education in undergraduate research after transferring to a new university

Isabella Bertolami BU’23


Jim Stellar

Isabella is the daughter of a former undergraduate student of Jim’s in his neuroscience laboratory at Northeastern. She is now an undergraduate herself at Boston University (BU). What brings us together, other than this shared history, is the idea of writing about cognitive-emotional integration in her decision to transfer between universities. Specifically, we are focusing on her transfer in the Spring of 2022 to BU as a Psychology major after going to the University of Tampa in the fall of 2020 and then Stonehill College in the fall of 2021. Where she is now is a perfect fit.

Isabella, can you first discuss what gut feeling went into the decision to make this transfer in your junior year?

Navigating school through the pandemic was difficult, particularly as the topic of transferring tends to be taboo for most college students. I would have never imagined that I would change schools’ multiple times. I have learned since my first semester of college, that you should not stay somewhere you are not happy – that is not a good fit for you. This realization led to me transfer not one, but two times. It also led me to find a school that is my perfect fit and where I can thrive.

When I originally picked my first school, I was unclear on what was important to me during my educational experience. When I transferred to my second school in the fall of 2021, however, I felt at a loss because as I toured schools, they were empty (due to the pandemic). It took time for me to find the right fit, but I knew at my second school I longed for more opportunities, and BU seemed like a big dream. I was drawn to it by all the research opportunities. Though I had to transfer again, and even though I arrived in during the spring semester of my sophomore year, it was worth it. Also, Boston has always been my home, but going to school there still feels like its own world and the University has offered me so many more things than I would have received in my prior places.

That is interesting, but in our conversation before we started writing, you mentioned that you wanted to engage in undergraduate research in the first semester (this past spring). Can you relate that story?

I mentioned that what drew me to BU was that it is a research institution as well as an undergraduate college. For some reason, I always longed to join a research lab. Upon entry into BU in the spring semester, I sought out to make it a reality. What I did not realize, is how competitive it can be and how the transfer process put me behind the process. As a new spring-term student, it felt daunting to try to navigate everything on my own. I did manage to find the resources I needed to apply to a few research labs, but I did not have anything to show yet from BU, so I did not get into one. The applications commonly asked questions about related coursework, professor recommendations, and any other such experiences. As a new transfer student, I did not yet have connections with professors, and I did not have research experience at my prior institutions.

The labs at research universities seem to want people who can be there for at least a year commitment. Even though I could do that, my total time in any lab would be less than a freshman since I am already going into my junior year. I did apply to various BU laboratories anyway for a research assistant position for the fall, focusing on child developmental psychology labs.

As someone who has supported undergraduates in a lab over a long career (since my assistant professorship at Harvard University starting in 1978), I can tell you that your interest has been cultivated by a big change where these kinds of programs and others (e.g. study abroad) over time. Now if an institution does not have such experiential programs beyond the classroom, it is harder for them to recruit and retain undergraduates. This is all to the good and suggests you will be successful as you persist. Maybe we can even come back and write a later blog after you do.

What I want to focus on now in this exchange is your motivation, your gut feelings about why you want to pursue this work. You wrote a bit about belonging. You wrote a bit about the vibrancy of a research university which has such undergraduate research assistant potential. Can you write now about what you were feeling as you hopefully applied in spring at BU and the mirror of that when for logistical reasons you stated, you did not get into a lab for the coming fall term?

To feel a full part of Boston University’s community and to take advantage of my time by learning from mentors, I had sought to be a part of a psychology child-based research laboratory when I first arrived. I already had previous experience working with children and teaching in a toddler and preschool classroom. I had taken courses at my previous institutions considered to be upper level at BU. They included clinical psychology and forensic psychology. I had and have confidence in my ability to work directly with parents, children, and colleagues within a lab setting. Unfortunately, in two of the labs, to which I applied, I was told they simply did not need any more research assistants for the coming fall term. One lab, however, contacted me saying that they were impressed by my application. As part of the interview process, I discussed my experience, why I wanted to work in a lab, and how I might deal with different situations. As for my interview, I thought it went well; it lasted about 45 minutes, and I was excited to answer every question. However, my hopes of making it to the second round of interviews were soon dashed by an email from the lab telling me that “We received far more excellent applicants this year than we can accommodate. Unfortunately, we have already filled the summer and fall semester positions.” They urge me to apply for other semesters, but I feel my time is running out. As of then, I’ve applied to various other labs and have not heard back or been told they don’t need anyone else. I will keep trying.

Perhaps starting with the UROP program at MIT a few decades ago, undergraduate research has become today an expected outcome for many students in college.  It always had the same appeal of mentoring, for example, but today experiential education in general and this form of it, in particular, has become important.  We see this in Isabella’s pursuit, as revealed just above by what happens when a transfer student, who has already gotten the idea, tries to get into a laboratory in the Spring term for the upcoming fall, having just transferred to a major university which does a lot of undergraduate research.  Stay tuned as we plan to come back and write again about what happens next as Isabella tries again with the benefit of a full semester at BU and continues the evident personal growth that has already come to her from the experience of transferring itself.

Indecisiveness, Emotion, and Decisions

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