April 21, 2009

At Cornell, “Research” is not Only for the Biologists

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Quick, what associations did you make? I’d venture to guess that either a beaker or a pipette crossed your mind, however briefly.

According to Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, “ Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” Szent-Gyorgyi’s definition, not specific to any particular field of study, implies extended creative thought on a particular subject. “Research” for many, however, suggests little about creativity.

Why, then, does “research” conjure up images of lab coat-clad, microscope-using individuals, mainly in the fields of biology, chemistry or physics?

As with many stereotypes, the media has a role in shaping public consciousness of what qualities are typical of a particular group. In terms of research, the media’s role is no different. Recall one of the latest fictional science-based shows you’ve watched, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (in the city of your choice), Cold Case, and other similar programs are appropriate. Each of these forensic crime dramas have two divergent character sets — those who work out in the field, often portrayed by overtly attractive, outgoing characters, and those rather reclusive folks who work in the lab.

In addition to the traditional linkage of science, solitude, and some type of experimental apparatus, the notion that research is often confined to the work done by biologists, chemists and physicists remains commonplace. Accordingly, this stereotype of research stems from the perception that the pure sciences are inherently different from the applied or social sciences.

Current wisdom suggests that the pure scientist pursues knowledge strictly for knowledge’s own sake, while the applied or social scientist uses known principles to solve practical problems. These ideas create tension between different fields of research, often elevating investigations in the fundamental sciences above those within the applied sciences.

A quick look around Cornell’s campus, however, will demonstrate the inaccuracies of the aforementioned assumptions and portrayals of “research”.

The Cornell Undergraduate Research Board’s the Annual Spring Forum held in Duffield Hall on April 15th showed that “research” on Cornell’s campus extends far beyond the traditional constraints of the “pure” sciences.

Recognizing the forum’s wide array of topics, Sujith Rajiva Vidanapathirana, co-president of the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board, commented, “Research is becoming a broader concept everyday. One of the greatest myths about research is that it involves super computing and lots of test tubes. Truth is that research cannot be confined.”

Including presentations from fields of study such as policy analysis and management, industrial and labor relations, linguistics and history & government, the forum showcased all avenues of exploration at Cornell.

With approximately 45 percent of poster and oral presentations outside of the traditional sciences, undergraduates on campus are involved in research whose breadth and depth extends well beyond the typical constraints of “research.”

Co-president Christine Yoon furthered Vidanapathirana’s sentiment, adding, “The Spring Forum shows the incredible variation of research being done … within [the] Cornell student body – whenever I attend the forum I am surprised by the creativity and originality of the research being done by my peers. There was even a presentation on Connect Four this year!”
Cornellians are clearly not limiting themselves to traditional ideals of research. Instead, they are venturing out into exciting focus areas and exploring new terrain, with inquisitive, imaginative eyes. This is the true meaning of research, just ask Albert Szent-Gyorgyi.