The ability to conduct groundbreaking research as an undergraduate student is an amazing and unique possibility that helps expand your horizons
One of the main reasons I chose to attend USC is the accessibility of research to undergrads! At a lot of universities, it’s very competitive to find research professors that will accept undergraduates; even then a lot of undergrad researchers end up doing small tasks like pipetting, cleaning lab equipment, etc. In USC Viterbi, participating in research as an undergraduate student isn’t just possible, it’s encouraged.
I managed to find a research position in my second semester here at USC. While deciding on a major itself is a difficult decision, deciding on a research lab can be just as hard because there are so many options — and I felt that firsthand. A lot of my older friends are big into research and they gave me some great advice: find professors whose research interests you and send them an email! I knew I wanted to apply my computer science skills to study something about biology so I looked at professors within the Biomedical Engineering and Computational Neuroscience departments. Even so, there are so many professors conducting super cool research that it was hard to choose. Luckily, on the Viterbi website there is a list of professors who are looking for undergraduates to help with their research, and that proved helpful when it came to narrowing down my search field a little.
A lot of professors are super busy and don’t have the time to respond to every single email they receive or they just don’t respond if they aren’t looking to bring on new researchers, so you have to be sure to email multiple! I cold emailed four professors and two of them responded, which surprised me! I met with both professors and with their Ph.D. students a couple of times before I made my final decision on working with a professor and his Ph.D. student on a joint project between the Biomedical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments.
For the past few months, my advisor and I have been working on using machine learning to help doctors and researchers understand the layout of fluids in the brain using MRI scans and mathematical calculations. I typically spend 5-10 hours each week working on my research: coding up models, researching MRI physics, and discussing my progress with my advisor. It might sound like a lot of time, but my research professor is very understanding of my busy academic life and lets me work around my own schedule. Some of my other friends with set research schedules still find time to have fun and relax — it’s all about time management! And when you enjoy your research as much as I do, it really doesn’t feel like work.
While doing research is a big-time commitment, it’s also one of my favorite parts of my week. It has helped me figure out what areas of study I’m interested in and which ones I might not want to go into. I’ve also learned so much more about coding and data processing than I knew when I started; learning by doing really is the best method for progress! While I was a Computer Science major when I found my lab, my research has allowed me to learn more about the parts of biomedical engineering that interest me and it helped inspire me to add Quantitative Biology as a second major. I highly recommend trying out research in your undergrad years if you have the chance! It can help you see some cool applications of your coursework and figure out what you might want to study as a career.