Office of Engaged Learning Office of Engaged Learning – Research Student Academic Engagement & Success

The work life of an undergraduate researcher: chemistry edition

This article unravels the captivating journey of undergraduate researchers in the field of chemistry as they step into the vibrant world of laboratory exploration. By delving into the experiences of Jonathan Cox, Kevin Nguyen, and the guiding wisdom of Dr. David Son, we uncover the invaluable benefits and transformative impact that research has on the young minds in academia. Jonathan and Kevin worked all summer as undergraduate researchers a part of the Summer Research Intensive

So, step into the bustling realm of a university chemistry lab, where the symphony of beeping machines and the hum of scientific dialogue paint a vivid picture of discovery in progress. For Jonathan Cox, an undergraduate researcher with Dr. John Buynak, the allure of “more advanced academia” beckoned, leading him to a summer of immersion in synthetic organic chemistry research. Cox reflects on the exhilaration of interacting with researchers from around the globe at the American Society for Microbiology Conference, where ideas are exchanged, and boundaries are pushed.

Jonathan Cox, Rising Senior Researcher

Cox inherited a transformative research experience where he applied textbook theories to new hands-on experiments. He had initial apprehensions about maneuvering intricate instruments and executing precise techniques; however, the lab became a canvas where theory transformed into tangible reality using newfound skills. Cox’s exposure to pharmaceutical research, a field he hadn’t previously considered, ignited a spark of interest. Cox had “never considered the overlap between advanced synthetic organic chemistry and biology…until I was able to put my foot into the lab and research it first hand,” he said. 

Cox, and his summer research partner Kendall Stieben, won first place in the SRI Three-Minute Thesis Competition, where students in the SRI cohort had the opportunity to talk with faculty and staff partners about their research from the summer.

Kevin Nguyen, an undergraduate researcher with Dr. David Son, equally had a transformative experience in the SRI. He emphasized the collaborative nature of chemistry research, which shapes a learning environment that encourages teamwork. Nguyen’s participation in the Three-Minute Thesis and professional development workshops during the SRI highlight his commitment to making complex ideas in his lab accessible. Nguyen states, “research isn’t research unless the public can comprehend its usage.” His desire to learn to simplify his research jargon was large in part to making his work accessible to community members. 

Nguyen tied for third place in the Three-Minute Thesis Competition as well.

Kevin Nguyen, Rising Senior Researcher

Dr. Son believes that partnership and mentorship with his students, like Nguyen, allow for them to truly hone their skills. Dr. Son’s rule of thumb for aspiring researchers is clear: “express interests in research early and often… be persistent and consistent,” he stated. His advice echoes through the corridors of academic ambition, emphasizing the importance of tenacity and consistency in the pursuit of knowledge. Dr. Son ensures that his role as a mentor nurtures his students’ minds holistically and not solely through lab work. 

The impact of undergraduate research transcends the confines of the lab. Through the SRI, Cox’s exposure to global conferences with Dr. Buynak widened his perspectives on chemistry and biology. In addition, Nguyen’s emphasis on public comprehension challenges conventional perceptions of research. As we consider their insights, it becomes evident that research equips young scholars with practical skills, critical thinking, and the ability to communicate complex ideas to a wider audience. This foundation extends beyond academia, preparing them for diverse career paths and making them stand out in competitive landscapes.

The work life of an undergraduate researcher in chemistry emerges as a profound journey of transformation and enlightenment. As we highlight the intricate realm of research, their narratives remind us that beneath the beakers and data lies a realm of collaboration, communication, and unwavering dedication that the SRI experience exposes for these students. The legacy of these young minds extends far beyond the lab, shaping a future where scientific discovery finds its voice in the world.

Rohan Jagarlamudi is a senior at the Alcuin School and interned this summer with the Office of Engaged Learning.