Research is often associated with the mental picture of a scientist doing bench work in goggles and a white coat. Your research project may very well involve just that! However, as many undergraduate researchers have established, there are so many different ways to conduct a research project. Undergraduate researcher at UConn includes field work, focus groups, working in communities, and more.
In the case of my project, the field is confined to the 13 inches of my laptop screen. I have been working to synthesize data from existing literature pertaining to mercury and selenium in fish tissues to draw conclusions about human health. Without any fish tissues or humans as a part of my investigation, I’ve been working with nothing but data for the past two years.
If you are working through a data-driven project that doesn’t involve much collaboration, I am sure you can relate to the frustration and isolation that comes along with it at times. Even still, I don’t couple my research experience with a sense of boredom or negativity. While it has involved countless hours behind a computer screen, there are things I’ve implemented into my research practices that have helped me maintain my overall well being and allowed me to enjoy the work I’ve done. If you are working through a project right now that is causing you to feel isolated, I hope my experiences are helpful for you!
When in-person meetings were welcomed back to lab environments, my lab picked up their typical practice of weekly meetings where the full lab gets together and discusses project progress, life events, and reviews any new works from the lab such as figures, posters, proposals, etc. Lab meetings are optional for undergraduates since we work either on our own independent projects or with a specific graduate student.
I decided to attend the weekly meetings when my project began to take shape and aligned with a few of the grad students’ projects and expertise. After a few weeks, I knew so much more about the people working in the lab and it solidified the start of our professional relationships.
Most labs have organized meeting times to touch base and keep members in the loop and on task. If you are finding that your work is more independent than you’d like, consider attending lab meetings to learn more about the people in the lab and what they’re working on.
Field work is many scientists’ favorite part of the research process. If is often the product of lots of proposal writing and planning and can be very rewarding to spend time putting those plans into actions. When I was completing my UConn IDEA Grant project Summer 2021, there were times when I felt like I was missing out on the summer because of how much time indoors my work required.
However, because I was attending regular lab meetings and was more involved in the lab culture, I found a steady stream of students needing assistance with field work. I spent many days that summer wading knee deep in a Connecticut stream with fellow students surveying for groundwater seeps. It was incredibly relieving to not feel tied to my indoor workspace and laptop.
Obviously, field work in a stream is more specific to environmental labs, but labs perform field work of in all different forms. It’s all about finding opportunities based on what ongoing projects around you require.
Change Your Mindset
Even with all the ways to be a more involved member of your lab, there are times when you just have to hunker down and do the work. There was a distinct time when I found myself starting to hate the work I was doing because I was not happy with the nature of the project. Since then, very little has changed about what my average workday looks like, but my mindset has. Perhaps this is thanks to my graduating senior status, but I have gained a much better understanding of how to feel like a human being when your project revolves around a computer. Here is a list of advice and approaches I’ve adopted to enjoy the research I have the privilege of being able to do:
- When an opportunity arises that is specific to college-life and therefore will not always be an option (ie. UConnic, HuskyThon, spending time with friends I haven’t seen in a while, etc.), I make every effort to be there, even if it means I’m going to be up late a few nights to compensate for school and research.
- Schedule time for yourself! As cliché as it sounds, putting even an hour or two somewhere on your calendar for self-care, exercise, cooking, walking, or anything that makes you feel like a human can be the difference between feeling like a zombie and not.
- Be present. It is easy to be wrapped up in all the reasons that a data-driven project is challenging, but there are so many reasons to embrace it. You are gaining skills relevant to project management, computer literacy, and others that will be extremely valuable in your future career. You are also likely doing work and learning things that you would have never learned about or explored as deeply in your normal courses.
- Data and coding can be incredibly gratifying and, dare I say, fun when you think of it like a puzzle. With any dataset, you have all the pieces you need to answer a question, you just have to put them together in the right way to best produce the answer.
Overall, I hope you take away that a data-driven project can be an enjoyable experience. It takes a very motivated individual and requires a lot of grit, but the opportunities it can open up make it worth it. Happy coding!
Chloe is a senior majoring in Natural Resources with a concentration in Environmental Sustainability and Conservation Click here to learn more about Chloe.