Mary Sweet

Mary Sweet

Year: Senior '13

Majors: Biology, Hispanic Studies

Title: Student Researcher

Where did you do your undergraduate research?

I did undergraduate research in biology during summers 2011 and 2012; the first experience was as part of an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program at West Virginia University and the second was at Northern Arizona University (NAU).

How did you find out about the undergraduate research program and what was the application process like?

I've known since before I came to college that I wanted to do biological research, and during my first year, I realized that I needed to get some experience. By the time I had realized this in the spring, every deadline had already passed for applications to summer research programs; so I put it on my to-do list for the following fall. I did most of my searches on Google and I came across a list of REU programs at various universities across the country (they're also listed on the Biology, Chemistry, and Career Services' homepages). They're a great opportunity for students from small liberal arts schools like CSB/SJU and were created to give students without any laboratory experience an opportunity to work at large institutions. Applications normally require 1-3 recommendations, a resume, a personal statement, and transcripts. There's no interview process, so your essay and recommendations are extremely important.

To obtain my position at NAU, I knew I was going to be spending the summer in Flagstaff, AZ where the university is located, and so I read up on what sort of research the biology professors were doing, and for those doing research I was interested in, I contacted them directly via email. I attached a resume and told them about my interest in their research and inquired if they had any lab opportunities for the summer. We met for an informal interview and I started working in the lab the next day.

What were some of the highlights?

One highlight from both of the opportunities was having the chance to live in a different state. I'm a born and raised Minnesotan so spending my summers in WV and AZ were exciting experiences. Also, REU programs are well-funded and besides the research, we had planned, expense paid trips like white water rafting, rock climbing, and mountain hiking with the rest of the participants. I lived with five other REU interns and it was a great way to meet people from all across the country. Additionally, it exposed me to my first experience working in a laboratory as well as to what being a graduate student might be like. With my time at NAU I was able to work closely with a graduate student, which further confirmed my desire to attend graduate school. With both opportunities, I was also able to complete two projects successfully and for the most part independently, which was a rewarding experience.


What was a typical day like? What were some of your major responsibilities?

In my REU program, the biology professor that I had been chosen to work with had a project she wanted me to complete throughout the summer, and a timeline with which to complete it. At first we worked together so that she could show me the correct way to do things, but most of the summer was spent working independently. I also had the opportunity to work on projects with other members of my lab, which exposed me to even more research opportunities. We had laboratory responsibilities that everyone shared in, like making sure dishes were washed and that the plants we used in our experiments were planted and watered, but I also had personal responsibilities like attending weekly journal clubs, reporting my progress to my professor and ensuring I was completing different steps of the project on time.

At NAU, I was responsible for a specific aspect of a project for which I had to communicate my results to other lab members. I was given a general idea of the amount of data I was supposed to collect by the end of the summer, but how I spent each day was more or less left up to me as long as I got the work done. Because I was doing work for a graduate student, I also had the responsibility of presenting my results to her so that she can eventually analyze the results in the larger context of the project.

What were some of the challenges of your research?

Part of working in a laboratory environment requires that you work independently, even if you are a part of the larger laboratory "team." Though I see myself as an independent person, it was a challenge to be in a new environment working more or less individually on tasks I had little prior experience. You learn to be self-sufficient and develop new problem solving strategies, but you also have to be humble and know when to ask for explanations or help.

What did you learn?

The biggest thing I learned in seeking research opportunities is that you need to take initiative. With the REU program, there are strict deadlines and requirements and it is up to you to plan things out accordingly. They're also very competitive and I was hesitant to apply, but I knew that I had to at least try. When I worked at NAU, I had to take initiative in contacting professors and letting them know I was interested in working for them. If you know what you want, just go for it! The worst thing that can happen is them saying "No." The best thing that can happen is that you gain an unforgettable, rewarding experience.


What advice would you give other students interested in research?

If you are interested, start early! If you're looking for a summer opportunity, do your research! There are many opportunities in Minnesota but even more if you look all over the country. REU programs (http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.cfm ) are a great resource for CSB/SJU students along with many other undergraduate research programs. Many of them have early deadlines usually beginning in December, so getting started by asking professors for recommendations early is important. Additionally, many CSB/SJU professors are also engaged in research and sometimes allow students to help them through paid positions offered over the summer. There are a plethora of opportunities, but you have to take the initiative and seek them out!