Undergraduate Research Experience

Jen here-

All of us have taken wildly different journeys to get to where we are today. I’d like to share part of mine with you all and emphasize the importance of undergraduate research. Although I am currently in a geology PhD program I started out as a Biological Sciences major. When I started my undergraduate career I wanted to become an orthodontist – this slowly changed to medical examiner to I have no idea. The spring semester that I was supposed to graduate I took a course in the Earth and Environmental Science Department to fulfill my last 300-level course requirement. The course was “Introduction to Paleontology” with Dr. Roy Plotnick. I immediately became enamored with the content and scheduled a meeting to talk with him. He offered me a research assistant position to work in his lab and I accepted. I decided to stay for an additional year to get a minor in Earth and Environmental Science.

I did not know much about undergraduate research when I started out my new position as research assistant. Roy had several projects going on at the time. I started in on one working to assess how a specific type of brachiopod interacted with the seafloor. This involved me using a force gauge to measure the amount of force required to push the creature into various types of sediment. I also explored a specific type of crinoid holdfast (the part that secures them to the seafloor) and how it acted almost like an anchor. Roy gave me the freedom to explore the experimental process. He had a variety of tools and materials to experiment with and I was able to build different types of holdfasts and use the force gauge to drag them through different types of sediment. This was not only fun but it was a huge boost in my confidence. I was conducting my own experiments and collecting data.

A young, awkward Jen conducting undergraduate research in Dr. Roy Plotnick’s lab circa 2012.

I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in paleontology. I had become very interested in the extinction dynamics of the Late Devonian. I did an independent study with Roy examining the changes in cephalopod diversity during this dynamic time. I began applying for graduate school in all the wrong ways. I attempted to contact faculty members but they weren’t very good at emailing me back so I would go ahead and apply rather than attempt to contact them again. This mostly resulted in me losing a lot of money on applications. Many of the faculty I applied to work with simply had no funding for students that year. One day Roy brought in an article that was recently published in GSA Today by Dr. Alycia Stigall. This article was titled, Speciation collapse and invasive species dynamics during the Late Devonian “Mass Extinction” and, of course, sparked my interest. I exchanged several emails with Alycia before applying (late) to her program. A few months later I was accepted to work with Alycia for the fall of 2012. Thus, beginning my long journey through graduate school. Without the random chance encounter with Roy during my undergraduate career, I would not be where I am today. His encouragement, support, and enthusiasm provided the best working environment for me to officially become a scientist.

Not all undergraduate research experiences result in positive experiences as mine did. By reaching out to faculty members and participating in different research projects you will quickly find out what you like and dislike! There is no harm in talking to faculty or graduate students about your research interests. It is very likely that they have similar interests or know people that do.

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