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3 Steps to Starting a Great Research Project

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Trained as a sociologist, Alejandra Carles-Tolra studied Boston-area ROTC students. To share her findings, she embraced photography, rather than writing a 500-page sociological thesis. She thought that the language of photography allowed her to express her sociological findings better than traditional academic writing. Her efforts culminated in a gorgeous art exhibition with ceiling-high canvas print of portraits of ROTC members in a sunlit art gallery in downtown Boston.

Will Beckham of Tufts University had never been to the Middle East before but had been utterly fascinated with its culture all his life. After some exploration, it turned out that Tufts' New Initiative for Middle East Peace (NIMEP) offered interested students a chance to fly to Turkey, conduct in-depth interviews with prominent political leaders, and create a research piece on political repercussions of Turkish investment in troubled region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Will applied and was selected to participate in this group after his sophomore year.

Ridwan Alam started his path to medicine by shadowing a neurosurgeon at Wayne State University. He immediately became interested in brain tumors and asked for an opportunity to get more deeply involved. He began working in a neuroscience lab, studying proteins involved in Grade 4 Glioblastoma, which is the worst type of brain tumor. By his senior year, he published two papers in prestigious neuroscience journals and was admitted to the best medical schools in the country. He is preparing to start at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the fall.

How did all these students manage to do the research projects of their dreams? Late summer is a great time for narrowing down your research interests, expanding your academic network, and starting to look for research advisors. Starting early is a tremendous advantage for a young researcher, so start by following these three steps.

1. Know thyself.

Thomas Torello, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard, recommends that his students refine their interests before coming into his office. "Many students are interested in studying a broad topic, such as cancer," he says. "But there are thousands of labs studying cancer, and each of them approaches the topic from a different perspective. So it's important for students to think about what aspects of cancer research they are most interested in." Refining your interests is important for narrowing down your search and focusing on the best opportunities for you.

2. Do your research first!

After refining your interests, find out who are the experts in your field and read about their work. Make sure you do thorough research before you talk to the professor to know his or her work and current projects. Start by browsing departmental websites or using academic network tools like Project Lever, Vivo, or Scholar Universe. Look at the database of National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health to see what professors have ongoing research grants.

To secure funding for your project, explore the grants provided by your school. At Dartmouth, for example, the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Research does a wonderful job of matching people with research openings, according to Ryan Tibble, an undergraduate researcher. There are also national opportunities, such as Research Experience for Undergrads (REU), a National Science Foundation grant supplement. Faculty researchers with ongoing NSF grant can submit an REU supplement application on behalf of an undergraduate student to support them financially.

3. Prepare for rejection and email five professors

Once you know the experts in your field, select several professors that seem interesting and write to them, asking about opportunities for collaboration. Be prepared and brave. Prof. Christakis of Yale University, who works a lot with undergraduate students, stresses the importance of preparation and perseverance in the process of contacting professors. "Just do it. Prepare for rejection and visit five professors. If you have a dialog with two out of five, that's great. Remember, mentoring is not a one-time game. It takes time and commitment to build a relationship but in the end, it works to elevate both the student and the professor."

Good luck!