Two Months in the Basement - Research Opportunities for Undergrads

Author:  Gelfand Ian
Date:  September 2005

After a year and a half in the University of Pennsylvania's Materials Science Department I started getting bored with coursework. By the middle of sophomore year I was tired of sitting in class absorbing information. I wanted to adjust the astigmation on an electron microscope, leak-check a thermal evaporator, anything but read and regurgitate dry theory. After talking to a few professors I learned about a summer program called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, REU programs are summer research programs designed to give sophomores and juniors a mini-taste of high-level research. I participated in two of these programs, and found them to be a great way to try science without making the five-year graduate school investment.

In the eight-to-ten-week program, students get to experience the frustration of having the mass spectrometer break the day they wanted to run their sample, and the mirth of actually solving a crystal structure from diffraction data. They are placed into a graduate research group and are usually mentored by a postdoc or an advanced graduate student who shows the student the ropes. The program culminates with an oral presentation on the summer's work, and submission of a written report in a journal-type format. For many participants this is the first time they give a verbal presentation.

Many REU programs incorporate group outings, discussion groups, and informal lunches. Lectures from faculty members are always well received, and can be the best part of the REU program. Most of what I know about surface spectroscopy I learned in a 30-minute REU lecture from the head of Penn's Chemistry Department. The small group size, 20-40 students, encourages spontaneity. For instance, one time a professor took people sailing for the weekend.

Typically, the University running the REU takes most of its students from other Universities. This is unfortunate, because the students who benefit most from the REU are people who can stay and continue to work. Usually it takes weeks or months to train someone in a lab. What often happens is that summer REU students leave the lab just when they become independent. Doing a research program at a home institution is better for both student and advisor; the student gets to keep doing what he has learned, and the professor doesn't lose all the effort he put into training someone.

In some REU programs, the program assigns the advisor. In other cases the student arranges his own placement. This is fantastic practice for graduate school, when your desired advisor may be busy and hard to pin down. It also gives students a chance to sell themselves to professors - a skill that will be useful in academia, industry, or business.

Many sophomores and juniors interested in science aren't sure if graduate school is for them. The National Science Foundation's REU programs are a fantastic way to sample science without making a five-year commitment. An investment of one paid summer can tell you if that dream of being a pointy-headed professor is realistic, or if you should just drop resumes at consulting firms. It can also turn into a fun thesis project. More information about National Science Foundation REU programs can be found online at