This weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to host the Viterbi Voices Research and Projects in Engineering Live Chat (linked here if you’re interested in checking it out!), which was a great opportunity for me to take a step back and look at my journey with undergraduate research in the last three and a half years.
For some context, I began conducting research my freshman year in my second semester, where I worked on a research project doing mechanical engineering testing for a nanotechnology lab on campus. I joined the lab after reaching out to a few professors in the Chemical Engineering and Materials Science department (where my major is housed!) but since I really had no idea what chemical engineering was all about, I had no expectations about the type of research I wanted to try! After speaking to a few professors, I decided to join a Materials and Nanotechnology Lab because almost immediately, I found that both the professor and the graduate mentors were welcoming and friendly, and seemed to have no issues with the fact that I didn’t even really know what nanotechnology was.
After working in nanotechnology for almost two years though, it was clear to me that my interests did not really lie in that sector. By that point, I had been hoping for over a year that if I just tried enough new projects in the lab or dedicated enough hours, that I would grow to love and be incredibly passionate about the research I was doing. And so, at the end of my fall semester junior year, when most of my friends were finally getting into the intricacies of writing academic papers for their own research labs, I decided to take a break from research.
I spent a semester doing no research at all, and for a bit I figured that was it. Research just wasn’t for me, and that was okay.
But near the end of my junior spring, I began to feel like I was missing an academic extracurricular element to my engineering life, especially since I finally felt like I had a grasp on my professional and academic interests. Junior year was when I first realized that my professional interests lay in the environmental sector; it was the year I took on more sustainable energy courses, declared my minor in political science, and resolved to try to enter the world of environmental policy after graduation. So I figured: why not try research in that field?
I had friends in the social sciences who conducted research on campus so I knew it was a possibility, even though it was not one I had ever considered myself qualified for. But I reached out to a professor I had taken an environmental law class with, and expressed that I was interested in the research he did on urban environmental policymaking in Indian and Chinese cities (as an Indian national who had grown up in an urban area in China, it sounded like the perfect fit for me), and he responded saying he would love to have me as a Research Assistant. I submitted a quick application, and before I knew it, I was doing political science research.
And it has been: so, so much fun.
Do I now have a strong inclination to pursue a PhD in political science focusing on urban environmental governance? No. But did I learn that research can be much more fun when it’s in a field I’m really passionate about? Yes.
I still think that full-time research may not be for me, but doing 5-10 hours a week (as I have been doing remotely this semester) provides a much-needed break from my engineering classes, and has allowed me to build my expertise in an entirely new (and admittedly niche) field; a takeaway I would have never had if I had not tried out research again or branched out of engineering research.