REU Round-Up Part II – An interview!
Sorry for the long delay, but here is the long-promised interview with a real-live graduate student! Amanda is a first-year grad student at a new-england university. She can tell you all about her experience below. What is interesting is that even though Amanda did hardcore inorganic chemistry in her REU, she has since gone on to a biochemistry lab, but still would like to apply her interest in metal binding. So as advice for all of you fledgeling researchers, don't feel trapped by your interests: an REU can be a great experience to expand your scientific understanding and learn a new field that you can apply to your own. With that said, here's Amanda!
SCB: First, just describe your experience – where did you go, what kind of research did you do?
Amanda: I participated in a 10 week Chemistry REU at Syracuse University during Summer of 2009. They allowed us to live on campus with the other participants and occasionally arranged weekend trips for us to get out of Syracuse. I worked in Dr. Jon Zubieta's Lab doing inorganic chemistry, specifically Hydrothermal Synthesis of Molybdenum complexes in the presence of other divalent cations.
Hydrothermal synthesis was a very cool technique to learn that allows you to set up reactions that incubated over a number of hours or days at high temperatures, and after filtering the mix and potentially identifying crystals, these could be isolated and mounted for XRD study. Further applications could involve incorporation into magnetics or electronics depending on the crystal properties.
SCB: Were you surprised by anything about your REU experience? Anything you expected but did not get, or vice versa?
Amanda: I was surprised that I was working under upper level graduate students in the lab rather than Dr. Zubieta himself. It had been my understanding up until that point that the PI's were always in the lab, too, but since then my understanding on that has changed significantly. They are often busy writing up publications and doing the administrative work. In that regard, I felt like I wasn't going to gain a significant experience, but that wasn't the case at all. I also had entered into that program with the thinking that I would be working on another project within the lab dealing with technetium and imaging, but I was assigned the hydrothermal project instead.
SCB: What did you learn during the summer?
Amanda: During the summer I was able to learn a few interesting inorganic techniques and got a really good feel for the schedule that upper level grad students often held at SU during the summer. The graduate students I worked with were very nice and gave me tons of advice about applying to graduate schools and finding a place that would really fit me. I learned about metal complexation and crystal growth in more depth that I had gained from my undergraduate courses. I also had the opportunity to learn and see instrumentation such as X-ray diffraction that were not available at my undergraduate institution.
SCB: What do you wish you had learned?
Amanda: I wish I had learned a little more about the instrumentation that was involved with the scientific system I was investigating. Although I learned a great deal about XRD theory I was never allowed to physically run the instrument when I did finally isolate some crystals due to lack of training. I feel that would have been a very valuable skill set that I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to gain.
SCB: Any advice for people who want to pick up some REU experience?
Amanda: My advice would be to really put forth some effort into the search process of selecting REU's to apply to and to which lab's interest you. I know it can be a competitive process, so I would also highly recommend getting help from advisors in order to send a very well written essay with the applications. Also, go into the process knowing that some school's websites are not always up to date. You could always email the professors directly with questions about the projects you could work on if you are very passionate about one listed. Regardless I would email the professor indicating your interest in their group and intention to apply to their institution's REU program.
Most importantly I would tell anyone thinking of continuing their science studies onward in graduate school to not think twice about doing an REU, especially if they don't have a lot of undergrad research experience. The whole process gives you a real feel for what grad school is like and whether or not that is a career path you would enjoy. There are REU's all over the country, and depending on discipline, all over the world so you can also have the opportunity to travel to different places and cultures. And as a bonus, you might even get a publication out of the experience as well!