FreeFries12
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Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Wed May 25, 2016 7:23 pm

How should one write an email to a researcher in order to receive the best response? In what tone should one write?

tdaly
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby tdaly » Fri May 27, 2016 11:37 am

Hi FreeFries12,

Great questions! You should use a professional tone and formal English (or other language). So, use complete sentence and check for typos and grammatical errors. Don't use texting-style abbreviations or slang.

Start by introducing your briefly (one sentence) and explain why you are emailing the person (one sentence). Describe your project (a few sentences) and ask between one and three specific questions (all together, a few sentences long). Thank the person for their time (one sentence), and close your email, using your name as the signature. You want to make it clear the person you are writing that you take the conversation seriously and that you have done some background research on the topic. A brief email is better than a really long one; the person you are writing may get dozens to hundreds of emails in a day. But, don't let that intimidate you!

This article makes some specific suggestions about how to approach a mentor. If you haven't already looked at the article, you should definitely check it out. (Full disclosure, I contributed to the article.)

http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-f ... tors.shtml

It can be scary emailing potential mentors (it was for me), but be bold and do it!

Post back as you have other questions.
All the best,
Terik

FreeFries12
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Fri May 27, 2016 12:32 pm

Thank you very much Tarik. Also, if I start off with a question related to their area of research and they happen to respond, how would I transition into asking them to be my mentor?

tdaly
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby tdaly » Sat May 28, 2016 2:45 pm

Hi FreeFries12,

If you want the person you are emailing to be your mentor, then I suggest asking them in the first email. Looking over the suggestions I made in the previous post, it looks like I left out this key part! Here's a revised "template" for how I might approach the email:

Start by introducing your briefly (one sentence) and explain why you are emailing the person (one sentence). Describe your project (a few sentences) and ask between one and three specific questions (all together, a few sentences long). Ask the person if they would be able to mentor you (one sentence). Tell the person what you find interesting about their work and why you think that they would be a good mentor for your project (one sentence). Thank the person for their time (one sentence), and close your email, using your name as the signature.

Post back as you have other questions!
All the best,
Terik

FreeFries12
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Sat May 28, 2016 3:56 pm

Hi Terik,
That gives me some new insight as well as a new problem. I am going to be a freshman in about 10 weeks and am working on a project to compete in the ISEF. I am hoping for my research to be in microbiomes. This kind of research is very "new" and there is only one person that I could find out of the entire staff of the CU immunology and microbiology department that did specifically microbiome related stuff. I emailed her yesterday with the template you sent me and haven't heard back so far. The question beating me up for the last 24 hours is how much time should I wait before panicking that the researcher didn't reply? Also, that article to which you contributed described the so-called "Funnel method" where you should email 20-30 scientists and slowly narrow the list down until eventually you have a mentor. But if a research institution doesn't have 20-30 scientists focusing on 1 particular subtopic, like in my case, should I abandon the project and start from scratch with some other topic?

Thanks,
Ibrohim

tdaly
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby tdaly » Tue May 31, 2016 7:08 am

Hi Ibrohim,

The waiting time in between sending an email to a potential mentor and then getting a reply can be nerve wracking! I'd give the researcher a week to respond before giving up hope. Keep in mind that the people you are emailing might be getting dozens to hundreds of email each day. Some of these emails may be very urgent; others may not be so urgent but are sent by people your potential mentor already knows. These other types of email will be a higher priority for your potential mentor to respond to. So, give it a bit of time.

The "funnel method" was the approach that one of the other authors of that article took to find a mentor. It addresses the fact that some potential mentors will never respond to your emails, while others will respond but decline to help you. So, don't be discouraged if the first person you reach out to doesn't respond. You can also keep in mind that some researchers might be able to mentor you even if they are not directly doing the type of microbiome-related work that you are specifically interested in. Perhaps you will find someone who has the expertise to help you, if you put in most of the effort. Before worrying about how to move down that path, however, let's wait and see if the potential mentor you emailed gets back to you.

Post back as you have other questions; let me know what you find out.
All the best,
Terik

FreeFries12
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Tue Jun 07, 2016 7:39 am

I did not receive a reply from the research scientist and decided to change my research topic altogether. My biology teacher said that research scientists are way more likely to respond to your email if you have data and previous research experience in the field. Do you know how much of that is true? If yes, then no 9th grader should be able to compete at the international fair, unless by luck.

tdaly
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby tdaly » Tue Jun 07, 2016 8:30 am

Hi Freefries12,

What did you change your research project to? When I was in your shoes, I sent emails to dozens of people, and not all of them responded. A couple of the people who did respond said they responded because they knew I had a plan. I had written up a "pre-lab", similar to the research plan required for the Intel ISEF forms that listed my question, hypothesis, and idea for a procedure. To prepare this, I spent a lot of time reading and learning what I could about the topic I was researching. This included everything from Wikipedia to college textbooks to peer-reviewed articles (which were a long slog at the time). Once you have a general topic in mind, start learning everything you can about that topic. When you encounter something specific that you find extra interesting, start looking more into that sub-topic specifically.

Even if you can't find a mentor in your area, you can still do a successful, competitive project. Read through the following blog post to learn about a student who used Ask an Expert to find a mentor and then worked with that mentor on her project.

http://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/2012 ... o-fuel.php

This is the Ask an Expert thread referred to in the success story:

viewtopic.php?f=25&t=6996

Don't give up hope yet!
All the best,
Terik

FreeFries12
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Wed Jun 08, 2016 9:13 am

Hi Terik,
I started out with same plan in mind (Reading every microbiome article in Science Magazine as well as other research articles) and once I was done annotating about 30 or so papers, I sent out my email. And that is where I ran into a problem because the the pool of researchers working on microbiomes in Colorado is rather low. I did what you suggested and sent an email asking question about a specific technique that the researcher mentioned and utilized in her research. In short, I used that template of how to write an email that you gave me (once again, thank you). After that didn't work, I decided that microbiomes is a hot topic, just for another year. So I shifted my focus to the crossroads of cancer and epigenetics (methylation). I am not quite sure what the exact wording of my question is, but I want to see the impact of methylation on tumor growth. This experiment can be conducted in a school setting, but I can approach cancer researchers (as there is quite a number of them at the medical campus near me) with my research plan and ask them for advice on how to better quantify my observations. If they respond, I will eventually ask them if they would be willing to help with the technology (ex: gene sequencing and what not) needed. If no one responds, my experiment will still be good, just not as flashy.
On a side note, I have heard that people come up with these 3 year plans, where they carry over their research from year to year until its really advanced and competitive in their Junior Year in high school. That is what I want to try and eventually be able to work with CRISPR/Cas9 as genetics has been my real passion since day one in biology class. I was wondering if these projects meet a certain positive bias in the eyes of judges, because this person is really passionate about one thing for multiple years in a row.

Thank you for your attention,
Ibrohim

tdaly
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby tdaly » Wed Jun 08, 2016 10:37 am

Hi Ibrohim,

These details are really helpful. It sounds like you have a good strategy in mind: doing a project that is still interesting to you, but for which you have more local resources.

With regards to the three year plans: Many people that I know (myself included) did projects that built on one another. The Intel ISEF calls these "continuation projects". Continuation projects have special rules and a form that must be filled out every year. Here is a link to the relevant rules for this past Intel ISEF:

https://student.societyforscience.org/r ... ts#Continu

and form:
https://member.societyforscience.org/do ... doc?id=652

The rules stipulate that all projects - even continuation projects - can only be judged on the current year's research. From my experience, this rule is very strict. For example, I had a picture on my display board of the setup of an experiment that was done the previous year (no data, just a picture of the setup), and I had to remove it. Later, when I served as grand awards judging chair at an ISEF-affiliated regional fair, we disqualified a student who included data from a previous year. So, you have to be very careful with continuation projects. ISEF is so strict about this so that the fair can be as fair as possible. It really isn't fair to a student who has spent 9 months on their project to be judged against a student who has been working on their project for 36 months. So, that is why ISEF has strict rules on continuation projects. Judges are *only* allowed to consider the current year's work when they judge a project.

That said, continuation projects can be very useful to you as a student, even though each year you are only competing based on the current year's project. This is because you gain more and more familiarity with the scientific concepts and background information about the field you are studying. This increased fluency can help you design each project more effectively than the last, as well as allow you to field some questions from judges more easily.

I'm happy to keep answering your questions about top competitions and advanced science fair projects. But, I do want you to know that I'm a planetary scientist. So, I spend a lot of time researching asteroids and planets, but I am not an expert on DNA methylation. Luckily, we have other experts on the forums who have expertise more in line with your project. As you start having specific questions about how to design your project, analyze and interpret data, etc., it will be helpful for you to work with a different Expert. I will look for another person who knows your specific subject area better than I do so that I can help the two of your can connect. To be clear - I'm happy to continuing working with you, but I think it would also be helpful to have someone who knows more about biochemistry and DNA than I do to be part of the conversation.
All the best,
Terik

FreeFries12
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Thu Jun 09, 2016 8:47 am

Thank you very much Terik. I really appreciate all the advice and insight you have given me.

Sincerely,
Ibrohim

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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby MadelineB » Wed Jun 15, 2016 8:27 pm

Hello Ibrohim,
I'm not a epigenetics expert but I do have a few suggestions that might help you find a mentor. I am impressed with the wealth of guidance that Terik has provided to you and the depth of your own motivation and research. Congratulations to both of you!

From reading the thread, it looks like you are near the University of Colorado Medical School. I suggest that might research the publications of the cancer researchers at the medical school. Then you could send each of them a very specific letter requesting to meet with them to discuss how they would tailor your ideas to fit in with their specific research.

I'm thinking that you will benefit greatly from access to the resources at the medical school to conduct your experiments, particularly if you want to do any gene-sequencing. I hope there is at least one researcher there who will realize the opportunity for helping you!

Let us know what you find and if we can provide further help. Best of luck!

FreeFries12
Posts: 8
Joined: Wed May 25, 2016 7:19 pm
Occupation: Student

Re: Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Sat Jun 25, 2016 10:27 am

Hello Madeline,
I really appreciate you and Terik taking the time to answer all of my questions. I will be sure to let you know how this mentor search turned out.


Thank you very much,
Ibrohim

FreeFries12
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Joined: Wed May 25, 2016 7:19 pm
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby FreeFries12 » Thu Jul 28, 2016 8:14 pm

So I found a person that was willing to work with me, but I face another challenge as the sequencing of DNA is simply too costly (just the first step, DNA conversion is at least $240). Does anyone know how a high school student residing in the US can get financial support?

tdaly
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Re: Finding a mentor

Postby tdaly » Fri Jul 29, 2016 7:31 am

Hi FreeFries12,

Congratulations on finding someone who is willing to work with you! That's very exciting news.

Identifying sources of money to support high school science projects can be tricky. Here's a slightly modified excerpt from a reply that I wrote to another student who had a similar question.

If the person you will be working with already has a grant from a funding organization (such as NSF or NIH), then your advisor might be able to request a small increase in their funding to help pay for your work. However, the mechanism for making such a thing happen (and the odds of such a request succeeding) will vary greatly depending on funding agency. The person you are working with at the university will be the person who will know best where to acquire funding for your project.

I did come across a list of potential grants that *might* be helpful for you, although many of these grants are for teachers, not students. I'm also not sure what geographical restrictions may apply:

http://www.cesa2.org/programs/stem/STEMgrants.cfm

This crowd-sourcing website might be a place to seek funds. Looking at the various options I can think of, crowdsourcing some funding might be one of the avenues with a greater (albeit still small, I suspect) chance for success:

https://experiment.com/


You might also try to find some of the people who tend to donate to science-related causes in your area. You could check the benefactor list on a science museum near you, for example. You might be able to convince someone like that to provide some funding for your project.
All the best,
Terik


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