This past summer, I participated in a ten week National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (or REU for short). An REU is a program in which students can travel to another university to work on a research project with a faculty member, post-doc student, or graduate student at that university. The REU I participated in was the REU in Chemistry & Biochemistry at Miami University. In the lab, I learned so many new techniques, confirmed a new scientific finding, and gained confidence in my lab skills. Although the lab experience was great, the REU had so many other benefits! In my opinion, all science majors should try to participate in an REU before they graduate and here is why:
1. You can learn new lab skills and build confidence in the lab.
Working in the lab every single day required using lab skills I learned at my home university. At first, I was nervous and afraid to make mistakes. At the beginning, I frequently made mistakes, but as the program continued I grew more confident in what I was doing, and made less mistakes.
However, I also learned so many new skills and how to run new experiments that I had never done before at my home university. Just like my old skills, I was slow and made mistakes at first, but by the end of the program, I was able to run several experiments at once (with the help of my lab partner of course), and much more quickly! Participating in this REU was a great confidence builder for me, and I’m excited to go into the lab at my home university with new found knowledge.
2. You get to learn all about the project you are working on, while gaining new insight into the field in which you are doing research.
Lab skills and experimental techniques were not the only things I learned in the lab. In an REU, students get to work specifically on one project. This requires reading papers and talking with the primary investigator to learn all about the specific project. My project was in the field of biochemistry and involved plant proteins. Throughout the course of my project, I learned about proteins involved in plant mitosis and meiosis, chloroplast structure and function, and immunology. It was almost like taking a class with no homework and no grades, while working on a project directly related to what you’re learning.
3. You might make a new discovery.
In research, there is always the opportunity to make a new scientific discovery. You could make a new compound that’s never been made, discover the function of a specific biological molecule, figure out a new way to purify a compound, etc. There are so many possibilities. In the lab, no work in useless, so even if you feel like your project is going nowhere, you’re always making progress, even if you’re only discovering what doesn’t work. As a science geek, it's pretty cool to be able to say you made a scientific discovery!
4. It's a good resume builder.
Adding an REU to your resume looks great. It’s a unique experience that combines working with learning and discovery. I’ve always been told the addition of an REU is impressive on an application to graduate school or even medical school.
5. You could make some money.
You’re probably wondering if you can get paid to do an REU. The answer is yes! An REU usually involves a stipend payment. Although you shouldn’t do an REU just for the money, it is nice to earn some money in the process, especially if you are a broke college student.
6. It builds good presentation skills.
At my REU, I was required to do two presentations. At the beginning of the program, each student involved was required to present the background and abstract for their project. At the end, we each made a poster and presented it at a poster session. Participating in an REU forced me to get up in front of people and help them understand my project. It was really good for me, since I rarely have this opportunity at my home university. It helps build public speaking skills, as well as communication skills.
7. It's an opportunity to live in a new place.
Although the REU I did was not too far from home, I still lived there during the week. I got to explore a town I had never lived in before, eat at new restaurants I’d never tried, and have adventures in different cohort building activities the REU provided for participants. Although I wasn’t in a completely new place, many of the other students in the REU were from places all over the nation. To them, the Midwest was a whole new place that they’d never been to, so I’m sure it was filled with even more new, exciting experiences for them.
8. It gives you confidence in living on your own.
I always joke that the most important thing I learned at my REU was how to cook. Since you aren’t an actual student at the university where the REU is, sometimes you can’t get a meal plan. At Miami, we had no meal plan, so I had to buy my own groceries and cook my own food. Although I hated that aspect at first, I came to like the sense of independence that came from picking out and buying my own food as well as deciding what I would make for dinner. It’s nice to know now that I can feed myself when I live on my own some day!
9. You learn what it's like to work in a lab every day.
Another great thing about working in the lab every day is that you can get a sense of what your future career may be like if you plan to go into research. You get a feel for the process of science. You get to see if you like the flow of trial and error. It’s a chance to see if you truly enjoy doing research.
10. It can help you decide if you want to go to grad school.
Participating in an REU can really help you determine if you want to go to grad school. If you love it, it can be a very positive indication that you should go to grad school. On the other hand, if you hate it, you know that grad school isn’t for you, so there is no need to waste your time applying or trying it. It’s almost like a trial run for grad school.
11. You might make some great friends in the process.
And last but not least, one of the best things about doing an REU is the people you will meet. At my REU, we all lived in the same dormitory, so we got to hang out a lot in our free time. I found some good friends in the other REU students. It’s amazing getting to hang out with people who have a shared interest in science, and nobody thinks you’re a nerd. Not only did we share a kitchen, but we shared a lot of chemistry memes and jokes, celebrated some birthdays, and learned about the places where each other were from. It’s crazy to think that because of my REU, I have friends from all over the nation. Although we only knew each other for ten weeks, I think we all made friendships that will last a lifetime.