undergraduate research

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In my last entry, I vaguely described undergraduate research pathways because I’m definitely not an expert – that’s why OCS (Office of Career Services) is here to help! What I can fully describe is my reasoning behind choosing to work at HDSL (Harvard Decision Science Lab) and why I’m a happy research assistant (RA).

I developed a profound fascination for neuroscience and chemistry in high school and wanted to ensure that these interests continued developing in college. With these pursuits in mind, I enrolled in the required introductory Life Science 1a (combination of biology and chemistry, GREAT introductory class, beautifully designed and organized, enthusiastic professors!) course Freshman Fall and signed up for Chem 20 (introduction to organic chemistry) during my Freshman Spring. While choosing classes for Sophomore Fall, I felt like I had neglected my neurology interests and (probably) overcompensated by enrolling in two MCB (Molecular and Cellular Biology) Classes: MCB 80 (Neurobiology to Behavior) and MCB 115 (Cellular Basis of Neuronal Functioning). After thoroughly enjoying the material and problem sets in both MCB classes (MCB 115 more so than MCB 80), I decided to declare Neurobiology as my concentration (major). Along a concentration path, you can choose to follow different tracks which slightly alter your required courses in order to reroute you to the cores of your interests. I considered the Mind, Brain, Behavior (MBB) track because I sometimes find myself wandering away from the chemistry aspect of brain functioning and dabbling into the psychological aspects. However, blending Neurobiology MBB requirements with pre-med requirements on top of my secondary and language citation requirements would make me an undergraduate student for a very extensive amount of time.

Instead of pursuing psychology in the classroom, I ventured to pursue the subject in the lab. When I discovered that HDSL was looking for undergraduate research assistants (to pay!), I jumped at the opportunity and applied.

In the lab, I work closely with 3 postdoctoral students on a daily basis and have closely interacted with two professors this semester by working on their research projects. My job is so exciting because my tasks range widely; I perform everything from literature reviews, checking human subjects in and out of experiments, setting up and analyzing physiological data to running experiments.

Working in the lab has also created a new community. As an HDSL RA, I’m a member of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) which holds semi-monthly luncheons for all RAs to come together and share what projects we’ve been working on in the lab. This past week was my turn to share.

I’m simultaneous working on 2 projects (and about to start another one that I’m REALLY excited about). In one project, I’m more involved with processing physiological data and in the other project, I’m more involved with running the experiment. I chose to present on the latter project which is about the influence that stereotype threats have on both individual and group performances. To investigate these stereotype threats, we’re examining female mathematical performance in different situations.

As I get more familiar and comfortable with the lab, I look forward to aligning my work schedule with specific professors whose research projects are particularly interesting to me. Saying I enjoy the flexibility and opportunities that the lab provides is definitely an understatement! I look forward to becoming more involved in the lab and look even more forward to blogging about it!!


*P.S. I’m really sorry for all the acronyms and abbreviations!

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If a meanie were to hold a gun to my head (likely situation now that my upperclassmen house/dorm community, Mather, is hosting a house-wide game of Assassin) and asked me to name the most important lesson that I’ve learned at Harvard, I would be ruthlessly murdered due to my indecisiveness. However, if the bully had just rephrased the question to inquire about my takeaways per semester, I would have lived to tell the tale.

As the semester falls to a close and Reading Period (the week before final semester exams where no official classes take place – a week to study and hopefully relax!) begins, my slightly slower schedule is concomitant to much reflection time. When I look back on each semester in retrospect, it’s always been easy for me to identify one activity that my whole semester revolves around.

Freshman Fall: Coxswaining for the Men’s Heavyweight Crew Team (Yes! Girls can do this…WHAAAT?!)

Freshman Spring: Chem 20 (an introductory organic chemistry class)

None of my friends knew the three other classes I was taking…'Nuff said.

Sophomore Fall: Working as a Research Assistant at the Harvard Decision Science Lab, located at the Harvard Kennedy School

Being a member of the math and science community, the pressure to perform research always exists. Lucky for me, I’ve always perceived this pressure as a challenge I’m willing to confront. I left this challenge on the backburner last year as a freshman though. So when I started comparing myself to my peers (a dangerous road I forbid you to travel down), I felt like I was slacking which resulted in a handful of freak-out moments during my Freshman Spring semester. I didn’t join a lab freshman year (totally normal!) because I wanted to wait for a topic that I’m genuinely fascinated by in order to avoid a tragic dive into a project I was only faintly interested in. Waiting and relying on fate can literally be one of the most frightening tasks! BUT just make sure you keep your eyes peeled and your mind open. In our fast paced lives, it can be hard to side step long enough to accept that some good things take time. But boy, am I glad I waited…

Within the two weeks right before the start of the Fall 2011 semester, I applied and interviewed for a position as a research assistant at the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory (HDSL, this is a moment where I wish we had a twitter so I can tell you to follow us…). This type of research would be completely different from all my academic and commercial research experience during my high school years because there would be no mice, pipettes, or microscopes involved! Although these differences were an enticing and an exciting aspect of the job, the unfamiliar environment was also a source of fear.

However, saying I was scared of that is just like saying I’m scared of opportunity; it’s ridiculous! After one semester of working at HDSL, I can already say that I’m obsessed. Not only does the job pay me well, but I also get to interact with many undergraduate and graduate professors while working on their projects, and working with post-doctoral students has given me significant insight in graduate education.

The surrounding Harvard Graduate schools were one of the prime reasons why I decided to enroll at Harvard College instead of other universities. I’m a big advocate of undergraduates exploiting opportunities from nearby graduate schools – also it gives me a (false?) sense that I’m not a member of the Harvard Bubble community. But that’s definitely not to say that there isn’t a virtual cornucopia of opportunities on the undergraduate campus. The Office of Career Services (OCS) frequently partners with undergraduate (and graduate) departments to hold informational sessions about upcoming opportunities in research as well as in the internship/job market and beyond! You also can’t use “I’m busy” as an excuse for being ill-informed because user-friendly informational websites are abundant. If this isn’t overwhelming enough, you can take it upon yourself to investigate what individual professors are researching and directly approach the professors to inquire about whether they need assistance or not! The opportunities are literally endless; but it’s also extremely important to keep in mind that having too many opportunities is a good problem to have.

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