August 1, 2017

Getting Involved With Research at Cornell

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Samuel Nadell ’17 details his experience with research projects at Cornell and shares some advice on how students can get more involved with such projects.

If you want to get involved with scientific research as an undergraduate, you’ve come to the right university: Cornell has world-renowned research faculty, tons of available resources and plenty of opportunities for students to get involved with research. Conducting scientific research is an enriching experience that can prepare you well for the next step after Cornell.

If you have any interest in research, I highly recommend pursuing a research project at Cornell, regardless of whether or not you’ve undertaken such a project in the past. “Research” can take on many forms depending on the subject, how theoretical or applied the it is, whether the research takes place in the field or in a lab or on a computer and level of commitment. As a researcher, you’ll be expected to synthesize what you’ve learned, learn new information and methods on the go, work both independently and collaboratively with researchers of all experience levels and manage your time well. While these may sound daunting, your rewards too will be plentiful. You will have gained knowledge in a topic of interest and a sense of pride in having assisted in bringing new and verified information into the world.

I’ve been a student at Cornell for the past five years (three as an undergraduate, two as a graduate) and during that time I’ve conducted multiple research projects in different departments. Based on that experience, I’d like to give you my two cents about getting involved with research at Cornell:

Talk to anybody you find interesting

In my opinion, the best way to discover research opportunities is to talk to the people that you might be interested in working with. Is there a professor of yours that is working on a really cool project? Talk to them after class. Did a graduate student give a guest lecture about a topic that’s been on your mind for a while? Don’t hesitate to send them an email. Some people would call this networking; I prefer to think of it as just reaching out to people who you think are interesting in some way or another.

I know this can seem scary at times, especially with all the esteemed and award-winning scientists at Cornell. But I promise you that there are no bad consequences from approaching a researcher, complimenting their work, explaining your interest and asking if there is any room for you to do research with them in the future. The worst case scenario is that they say no. Even in those scenarios, you’ll likely be pointed in the direction of another professor/graduate student who might be able to take you on. Best case scenario, they say yes!

During sophomore year, a professor gave a guest lecture in one of my science classes and mentioned a topic that I found pretty interesting. I talked to him after class and he said he might be able to find a project for me. That project would end up becoming my Master’s thesis. I’m not saying this will or should happen to you, but know that you’ll only get the chance if you talk to people.

Don’t panic

This can be applied to all aspects of college life, but for now, let’s look at it from the angle of taking on a research project. A lot of people have questions about research: when should I get a summer research internship? Should I do an honor’s thesis? How much time should I put into a particular project? The short answer is that it’s different for everybody. I know people who have done an internship the summer after their freshman year and others who never had a research internship. Some people do honor’s theses, but others don’t and still get into top graduate programs. Basically, you should do whatever you feel comfortable with. If you start a research project and realize you’re not a big fan of the topic (which I’ve done multiple times), it’s okay! If you want to wait until senior year to start research so you can focus on classes first, that’s great! And keep in mind that the professors and graduate students at Cornell are great resources if you are ever concerned or curious about research.

Now I realize that “talk to people” and “don’t panic” aren’t necessarily the most novel pieces of advice, but I know that I would not be where I am today without the motivation those two phrases provided.