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Undergraduate research: How ASU students can fast-track their careers

In the wide world of undergraduate opportunities, a professor and ASU students share advice that helped them succeed in the field

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Undergraduates are looking for chances to put lines on their resume, and research experience is one way to do that.

Among all of the opportunities to boost resumes, students could be overwhelmed with choices, especially in STEM fields where research is a prevalent aspect of the career. Getting involved early is critical, especially now during recruitment season.

While there are many ways of getting involved in undergraduate research, some ways can be more fruitful than others.

"There certainly are programs, especially our summer programs, the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates or 'REU's," Stephen Munk, the deputy director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU, said. 

These NSF REUs are paid programs open to domestic students.

"The REUs tend to be short experiences of seven or eight weeks over a summer. That's certainly very prestigious," Munk said. "Employers look at those lines as well as graduate schools. So whatever your next step in life is, that's a very nice line to have on your resume."

However, there are some drawbacks to REUs, like their short length compared to on-campus research.

"You're not really going to get as much of a deep experience in the seven or eight weeks there … it's too short a period of time to really get involved in a program in a deep fashion," Munk said.

Furthermore, these programs are not open to international students, which makes them less accessible. Generally, most undergraduate research is not done this way. In fact, it often involves much deeper connections between a student and a faculty member.

"Typically, undergraduate research happens in the one-on-one way," Munk said. "It's certainly best to prepare yourself before you go talk to a faculty member by reading some of their papers … figure out what they do so that you're well equipped in a discussion to understand what kinds of work they're doing and why you would be a good fit."

This is how Yibo Chen, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, was able to get involved in undergraduate research under the mentorship of Shahnawaz Sinha, an associate research professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, through the Grand Challenges Scholars Program Research Stipend.

"I had consistent bi-weekly meetings with my mentor, Dr. Shahnawaz Sinha," wrote Chen in an email. "We talked about potential problems and research questions I could tackle within my expertise level at the time, and problems I may run into. Dr. Sinha is an extraordinary and talented professor, his mentorship has been integral towards my successful acceptance into the GCSP research stipend and (the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative)."

The GCSP Research Stipend, unlike an NSF REU, is more exclusive and only open to members of ASU's Grand Challenge Scholars Program. Similarly, FURI is another program offered by ASU to encourage undergraduate research, and is limited to students in the Fulton School of Engineering. They are both open to non-citizens.

However, talking to professors is not the only way that students can get involved in research. ASU offers positions through its student employment search that can serve as a gateway into research opportunities.

Nabhan Fakrudin, a senior studying molecular biosciences and biotechnology, landed his first research opportunity at the Biodesign Institute through applying for a student employment position. 

"My first research opportunity was in the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology over in the ASU Biodesign Institute and … it was a (lab manager) job I had applied for," Fakrudin said. "In the process, the lab manager and financial manager for the institute … thought I was more adept at research. For a period of one year, I was at the Center working on improving cellular degradation and various other projects that we were working on."

The impacts of partaking in undergraduate research can be great, especially for job prospects. 

"I think undergraduate research gives you a great foundation to pursue either a graduate career or a job immediately after undergraduate school," Munk said.

Fakrudin’s current research trajectory is an example of this in action. His work led to a series of opportunities, including a job at the Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Munk is a former undergraduate researcher as well and credits his experience with shaping his interests in the pharmaceutical industry. 

"I did undergraduate research here (at ASU) many years ago," Munk said. "It was formative for me ... It tells you some things that you might like to do and things you might not like to do. And learning what you don't like, in a sense, is as important as what you do like, because if you spend time doing research ... you realize that that's just not for you."

Munk encourages students considering undergraduate research to pursue it early on in their academic career. 

"I think there's a wonderful argument to get involved in research as early as possible," he said.

Edited by River Graziano, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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