Faculty Offer Advice to Summer Research Students

Students participating in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering’s Summer Research Scholarship Program have the opportunity to work closely with faculty on various research projects while earning a stipend. As part of the program, participants meet weekly to discuss project progress, and to learn more about the research going on in other departments in the college.

This past week, Herbert Medina, associate dean for faculty/staff development and student success, brought together a panel of faculty to talk about their experience in academia, offer advice to students and explain their journey through the sciences. The panelists included Stephen Heller, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Sarah Mitchell, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Bill McCormick, assistant professor of health and human sciences. Biochemistry seniors Shannon Pilcher and Xaida Wright acted as moderators.

In his lab, Heller and his team are developing new chemical reactions scientists can use to make new compounds for medicinal purposes. Mitchell is studying how DNA information is stored, transferred and used. McCormick is studying aerobic performance and sports medicine.

The panel addressed a range of questions from the moderators: What was your pathway to becoming a faculty member? Did you ever feel like you wanted to give up? What was a “wow” moment in your education or career?

Heller’s “wow” moment happened during his first summer research experience. “I was in the lab and it dawned on me that this material I was working working with had not existed before in such a quantity.”

After discussing times when the panelists wanted to throw in the towel, Mitchell advised, “Your relationship with your advisor is very important.”

Heller agreed and added, “If you’re pursuing a graduate degree in the arts and sciences, make sure there is more than one professor you would be jazzed to work with.”

Students asked panelists how they lifted their spirits during tough times. Mitchell said she volunteered regularly at an animal shelter and could “cuddle with cute kittens and puppies” every week.

“I would go work out,” said McCormack. “You have to get rid of the stress that builds up. I also set my sights on graduating.”

Heller advised, “Have a social circle who knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

Moderators asked the panelists for advice they’d give students considering going down similar paths:

“Take the blinders off,” said McCormack. “Take opportunities to volunteer, shadow someone and try different things.”

“Your job is to fail,” said Mitchell. “Failure is a natural part of the process.”

“Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Heller. “Think of how you will cope with inevitable failure. Nature doesn’t care about what you want.”

In terms of building a professional network, all the panelists agreed the best way is to attend conferences, collaborate with authors, and find connections through a mentor. McCormick encouraged students to take advantage of their opportunities, and emphasized that shadowing someone is the best way to gain experience.

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