Monday, November 21, 2016

The Not-So-Obvious Benefits of Undergraduate Research

In 2014, the members of PVL took part in a photo shoot to promote the lab and science at York. We had to get a little creative as planetary science isn’t always as flashy as photographers might like! Pictured from the left, me (Brittney), Casey Moore, and Ian Tomaszewski.

By Brittney Cooper

In my first undergraduate year at York, I met many passionate students through my involvement in academic clubs and volunteer research. I’ve always tried to get the most out of every experience, and do as much as I can while I have the opportunity to learn as much as I can. Being surrounded by like-minded individuals early on in my academic career only further cemented those ideals, and as I will come to discuss within this blog post, my experiences ended up teaching me a great deal about what it means to take on too many things, and compromise your goals by losing focus.
During a shift volunteering at York Observatory towards the end of my first semester at York, I met Dr. Moores and ended up learning a great deal about his research, all of which happened to greatly align with my interests. I ended up looking into his work further following our meeting and after becoming thoroughly inspired, I decided to reach out and see if I could offer any assistance in his lab. I was quite convinced that there was no way a first year undergraduate student could be of any real help to him, but it couldn’t hurt to inquire, right?

In the end I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dr.Moores was quite open to having eager undergraduate volunteers work on projects, and there was a range to choose from requiring different skill-sets. I was added to an image cataloguing and analysis project, thus beginning my three year stint in PVL.
The following summer, I ended up getting funding last minute and it felt amazing to get paid to do research full-time as a summer research assistant. It was a wonderful opportunity, and the first of many that has stemmed from my involvement in PVL.
All that volunteering in my first year had made me extremely enthusiastic upon entering my second year. It had me naively believing in the philosophy that I should simply say ‘yes’ to any opportunity that cropped up, as so many great things had come from the ones I had said ‘yes’ to, so far.
I’m sure you can guess where this is going, but by the end of my second year I was volunteering in PVL along with two other research-based initiatives, and was deeply involved in two other academic clubs while also working a job… all on top of that little thing called ‘school’. By the end of the year I was completely exhausted and had spent all of my time on extra-curriculars (a majority of which seemed to be rooted in subjects with no significant relevance to my degree or interests).
My grades greatly suffered and I found myself completely doubting my ability to succeed as a student. It seemed I had forgotten the primary reason I was at York, in favour of involvement in research and academic groups. I was so focused on getting so many different experiences that I ended up not really savoring any single one of them. By the end of the year, the things that I cared the most about (like my degree and my own research in PVL) were at risk.
This is where I had to take a step back and realize a few things. Dr. Moores offered up some much needed advice (albeit hard to hear at the time), and it became clear that I needed to make some changes if I wanted to meet my academic goals. I had to regain focus on what was important to me, and budget my time accordingly to benefit my studies and the work that I really wanted to do.
I ended up trimming off a lot of extra-curriculars in my third year and managing my time better. That led me to have my best academic year so far at York, which then helped me win another grant to continue doing research full-time in the summer.
Fast forward to the present, where I am currently in my fourth year at York, and my third year working at PVL for Dr. Moores. So far (thanks to my involvement as an undergraduate research assistant) I have had the opportunity to present my work at multiple international conferences in Canada, partake in an analogue Martian rover mission run by the CSA, and become the second author on a published paper. I have also met and worked with a great deal of inspiring and hard-working people doing really cool research in planetary science.

Driving the MESR rover across the CSA Mars Yard following the completion of the Mars sample-return analogue mission in 2014.

It would be an understatement to say that working and volunteering in research as an undergrad has been an immensely rewarding experience for me, and the point I want to close with is that beyond those flashy-sounding things I’ve listed above, it also offers up many invaluable, but not-so-obvious benefits to the students who partake in it.
I’ve listed a few of the ones I have found to have had the biggest impact on me, below:

·      Development of time-management skills through learning to balance research and school work is definitely a big one, not to mention the fact that projects are often self-driven.
·      You have to answer to yourself; if you want to do research, you have to put in the time, and this ability easily translates to holding yourself accountable for your studies as well.
·      You have the potential to gain a great deal of technical and problem-solving skills that relate to your academic courses and can put you ahead of the curve.
·      Your supervisor can act as a great mentor, offering up valuable advice and guidance, and encouraging you to push yourself and apply for opportunities to further expand your academic or research career.

I am incredibly happy that I decided to reach out as a first year to what seemed like an unlikely possibility. I never would have imagined my time at York being so enriched by the experiences that stemmed from it, and the people I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with. If I can offer any advice to undergraduates out there, it’s going to be very cheesy, very simple, and very effective: just go for it. You never know what might come of putting yourself out there, but be sure proceed with caution and never lose sight of your goals, as it extremely easy to get in over your head.

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