In September my friend Amanda Marinoff and I entered the Siemens Competition as a team. To find information regarding this competition, you can visit the Siemens Competition website, and you can read the student blog by Benjamin Pollack, which is located here on the Science Buddies website. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss my experiences in the years and months preceding the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, and additionally, I would like to offer advice to aspiring student researchers.
My Hands-On Experiences
As a high school student, I had willingly dedicated my summers to scientific endeavors. I had participated in a biotechnology program at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook the summer after my freshman year. The following summer, I had the privilege of working alongside undergraduate and graduate students in a biomedical engineering laboratory. In order to be accepted into this lab, I had emailed the director of the laboratory and subsequently completed an interview with her. I was absolutely overjoyed when she welcomed me into her lab. Since I had only completed my sophomore year of high school, I found it rather difficult to find a mentor. However, after countless emails, much persistence, and boundless dedication, I succeeded in my objective and that summer, I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated my research experience in the lab, working with my mentor.
During my junior year, I once again emailed professors at SUNY Stony Brook and I applied to a few research programs. I ultimately decided to work in a laboratory in the Chemistry Department, and through the university, I was awarded a Simons fellowship. In order to be accepted into this lab and the fellowship program, I had to complete separate applications. For the lab, I also went on an interview.
I was informed of my acceptance into the laboratory toward the end of that winter. After my initial swell of elation, I decided to channel my enthusiasm into gaining a more complete understanding of the scientific subject matter. I was going to be working in an organic chemistry laboratory, and although I knew that experimentation would not commence for another few months, I deemed it important to acquire sufficient background knowledge in the general field. My high school's chemistry curriculum did not extensively cover organic chemistry, so as a result, I decided to read and outline several general chemistry and organic chemistry textbooks. I eagerly continued this endeavor throughout the summer, and even though the information that I acquired often did not directly pertain to the research that I was pursuing, I found it beneficial to have all of these puzzle pieces in the palm of my hand.
Meanwhile, I began to read scientific journal articles, the vast majority of which could be accessed online. Initially, I read articles written by members of the chemistry lab that I would be joining. I underlined information that I considered important, and I often took notes and wrote questions in the margins. These questions would later serve as stepping stones for further inquiry. All the while, I started reading journal articles that were specific to various aspects of my research topic. If each key word, idea, or procedure represented a branch, my thorough investigation into each of these topics represented a full-grown tree. This investigation proved rather essential for my experimentation.
Over the course of the summer, I spent my mornings and evenings scouring scientific journals and consulting as many resources as possible. These journal articles are the crucial scaffolding of research, serving as both a reference and a guide for scientists.
Besides reading journal articles, I familiarized myself with the equipment that I would be using. I often read manuals that detailed the structures of the instruments and I perused websites that explained how these instruments operated. Throughout the summer, these extremely delicate instruments proved to be quite fickle. As a result, it was beneficial to understand how the equipment functioned. Only then could we administer the proper remedy to nurse these instruments back to good health.
Amidst all of my excitement during that summer, I decided to maintain a lab notebook. Each day that I engaged in experimentation, I meticulously recorded the purpose, materials and methods, observations, results, and conclusions. Although this might appear to be tedious, it is well worth the effort. Such careful notes enabled us to repeat procedures with great ease, compare observations, and draw insightful conclusions.
The Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology
My friend, Amanda, had been working in the lab with me. During the middle of the summer, even though we had not yet completed experimentation, Amanda and I began to write our paper. We were practically drowning in background information and organic chemistry reaction schemes, so we thought that it would be best to formalize our ideas and observations on paper for a more organized approach. By beginning to construct the paper over the summer, we were also giving ourselves adequate time to ponder, propose, write, and revise.
Amanda and I submitted our research paper to the Siemens Competition at the end of September. After being named regional finalists, we presented in front of a panel of judges and audience members at Carnegie Mellon University. After we won 1st place in the team category at the regional competition, we presented at New York University for the national level of the competition. We were absolutely ecstatic because we won 1st place in the team category at the national level for the overall competition! It was gratifying to know that our tremendous dedication, effort, and diligence helped contribute to our success.
Nonetheless, I must emphasize that prior to winning the competition, Amanda and I were already extremely proud of our personal accomplishments and earnest research efforts. We had never decided to engage in scientific research for the sole purpose of entering and winning a high school competition. Rather, we set foot in the lab with an innate desire to learn, explore, challenge convention, help our global society, and have fun.
If you possess an inner curiosity, a desire to investigate and solve problems, and a really intense longing to wear lab coats and goggles (just kidding!), I hope that you decide to explore the avenues of research during your high school career.
Below I have outlined some additional helpful tips and advice for students interested in conducting research:
- Determine the research environment that is best for you. Depending on the topic that you wish to pursue (e.g. science, social science, or math), your home, your school, a hospital, a private research facility, or an academic institution may prove more suitable for accommodating your interests.
- When searching for a mentor, try to broaden your interests, but ultimately follow your passion. Skim journal articles to determine whether your research interests coincide with theirs, and then, carefully construct emails that express your enthusiasm and interest in their research. Do not be disappointed if they fail to respond to your email or if they decline your request. These labs may already be filled with students, or they may not be suitable for a high school student who wishes to conduct research. Numerous attempts must often be made before a mentor accepts you into his or her lab.
- If you are provided with the opportunity during your interview, ask the mentor to specify what role you would have in the lab. It is best to know what to expect prior to committing to a particular lab.
- Throughout the experience, ask your mentor any questions that you might have pertaining to the equipment, the experimental procedure, or your research. Don't be afraid to ask questions. More often than not, they will be eager to help you.
- Set realistic goals. Do not be disappointed by failure or frustrated by setbacks. They are extremely common. A research experience without any obstacles would be an anomaly to the scientific community. Just remember that setbacks and failed attempts are often pivotal components of your research. They enable you to hone procedures that you are developing, refute initial hypotheses, form more insightful conclusions, and test your critical thinking skills, stamina, and patience.
- Recognize that engaging in research is a reward in itself. During your research experience, you are at the absolute forefront of technology and our scientific horizon, conducting experiments usually at the level of graduate school research. It is an honor and a privilege to have this experience while attending high school.
- Finally, remember to laugh (a lot).