Doing Undergraduate Research in the Time of COVID

A cornerstone of your chemistry degree is research. COVID restrictions, however, might have delayed or canceled your previous plans to learn and apply lab techniques to research projects or begin discussions with advisors on what you want to study. You may have lost some motivation or be worried that all skill-building opportunities have vanished.

“I totally understand students being worried. I think that it's justified and rather expected,” says Samantha Mensah, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles. As an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida, Mensah earned years of experience doing nanoscience research, including summer programs at the University of California San Diego and The Sorbonne in Paris, France. She understands the value of research and mentorship, and expects employers and universities to understand the challenges facing students today. “I think that they will look at your attempts to circumvent that issue.”

The fact is you can still develop research skills during the pandemic, and we’re here to tell you how.

But first, why?

“If a student says: ‘I'm not looking for research opportunities because I don't think I'll get any,’ I say: ‘Why are you not trying?’,” says Anne Donnelly, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Undergraduate Research. Fear of failure is common, but it’s an important hurdle to overcome. You certainly won’t find new opportunities without leaving your comfort zone. Failure is just part of the process (as well as part of research).

The benefits of undergraduate research are worth the effort. “The upsides are so, so many in terms of professional development,” Donnelly says. Independent research has been shown to sharpen technical, problem-solving, and communication skills, she adds. Donnelly, who earned a Presidential Award in 2015 from President Barack Obama for her science, math, and engineering mentorship, also finds students have more fun learning chemistry with research than with class.

Regardless of whether you go on to graduate school, research helps you decide what you want to do with your life, she adds. You might not really even know what a professional chemist does until you hang out with one. Or you might find out that lab research isn’t for you. “Let's say you find out that you absolutely hate research. That's a good thing to learn before you get into graduate school, right?”

Set reasonable goals

To set goals for COVID-era research, you should  reflect on why you want to do research in the first place. Maybe you’re inspired by the future of energy storage and joining a lab will teach you techniques you’ll use to study that area. Perhaps, you want to try out different fields of chemistry to figure out what you want to specialize in. Maybe you want to develop specific investigative or analytical skills such as experiment design or developing theories.

The University of Michigan’s Department of Chemistry has a list of technical and communication skills and various fields in which they apply that can help you brainstorm what you want to focus on.

Once you know the direction you want to take, reach out to professors and graduate students in your field of interest. Find out what their research specifically entails, and ask how you can contribute to experiments that build your targeted skills.

You can ask about remote opportunities even if you’re already working on a non-remote-friendly project. This sort of transition is common. After surveying 152 University of Florida undergraduates, Donnelly found, Donnelly found that 60% were still conducting research—and more than 20% of those had switched to remote projects.

Zosia Caes, a junior majoring in chemistry at Yale University, emailed 10 professors asking for an opportunity. Right away four responded “no”. Caes has been working in a chemical engineering lab doing synthetic chemistry since before the pandemic. Once the shutdowns happened, the synthesis component she loved ended. Given the new circumstances of working, “it's a lot more difficult for me, and not as fun,” she says. Since the summer, Caes has been trying to find a position more suited to her interests.

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