Connections are key to obtaining a challenging research experience. And scientific conferences are an ideal place to make those connections. Conferences allow you to network with peers, colleagues, and experts in your field. In addition, you are able to attend workshops, panel discussions, poster sessions, and technical presentations describing the latest innovations in science. In this article, I briefly describe how I went about selecting a summer research program and discuss the importance of gaining research experience as an undergraduate.

Networking and Opportunity

In my case, as an applied mathematician, I met a director of a summer research program while attending the 2002 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science ( AAAS, publisher of Next Wave). Immediately following my presentation on the mathematical models for eliminating hantavirus--a pathogen that can cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome--I was offered an opportunity to participate in BioQuest, a community of educators addressing undergraduate biology education. John Jungck, a principle investigator (PI) in the field, asked me if I would be interested in submitting my scientific paper on the hantavirus modeling to the BioQuest library. I told him I was very interested, as this would be my first academic publication. He then offered me the opportunity to become a Howard Hughes Medical Institute digital scholar for summer 2002. A second exciting opportunity! I told him that I was indeed interested, but I was not in a position to give him a definite answer because other summer opportunities were pending as well. I had applied to the Leadership Alliance Program at Princeton, the SMART program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the AGEP program at Rice University. I was waiting on responses from each regarding my application status.

Selecting the Right Research Program

Eventually, I received acceptance letters from all the summer programs for which I applied--as well as one for the National University of Singapore through the Education Abroad Program at University of California, Irvine. I now had to make some decisions! If I accepted the program at the University of Singapore, I would be there from mid-July 2002 until late May 2003. This was a great opportunity, but it would require a huge commitment of my time. I would not be able to take part in any summer research program because most lasted through August. But Jungck told me that I could attend the BioQuest program for a shorter amount of time, so I seized the opportunity! My summer research program would involve work in both Wisconsin and New Mexico. And all expenses would be paid, including housing, food, and airline tickets. What a deal!

If you are interested in pursuing a summer research program, my advice to you is to apply early. And make sure you obtain good letters of recommendation from your professors, mentors, PIs, and other advisers. I think if you allow yourself enough time to prepare for the application process, your chances of being selected by the program reviewers will be far greater.M/p

Gaining Hands-on Experience

My first research project took place at Beloit College in Wisconsin, which has a wonderful biology program. While I was at Beloit, I attended a 9-day conference that was very challenging to those who, like me, are interested in simulated ecological and biological research. The theme of the conference--the annual meeting of the BioQuest program--was biocomplexity. Professors were flown from places as far afield as Finland, New Zealand, Hungary, and Sri Lanka. I was the only student participant in this conference, as others already had attained their Ph.D. in numerous biological and mathematical fields. In addition to helping me prepare for my second research experience in New Mexico, I learned about a variety of ways to make undergraduate research experiences more interesting.

All the participants were housed in a dormitory building, each with their own room and a meal plan consisting of three meals per day. My typical days in this workshop started at 8:00 a.m. with lectures and presentations. Then we all would eat together and walk to the computer lab where we conducted our online and simulated research. All of the research we did used data and simulations--we could not create actual biological experiments due to time constraints. My days would end at around 8:00 p.m. after I finished working on my final project, which involved modeling Lyme disease in the New York area.

By pulling together biological, mathematical, and statistical information, my group developed an informative and entertaining lesson plan that will be published in a teacher's journal. We brought simulations into the educational process, thus allowing undergraduates to participate in an interesting hands-on model manipulation. I learned to use various types of programs housed within the BioQuest Library, all of which can be used in the classroom environment. Jungck was and is a great mentor and his commitment to biocomplexity seemed to drive me to learn as much as possible.

My second research project--in New Mexico--lasted 17 days. It involved data manipulation, creating realistic ecological models, and Web site critiques. My task was to extract data from the Long Term Ecological Research Web site that could be used in an undergraduate curriculum. I stayed in a house just outside the University of New Mexico campus. It was about a 20-minute bike ride each morning to get to my lab. I came to the office every weekday at around 9:30 a.m. and worked until 6:00 p.m., extracting data and writing analyses.

I retrieved data on multiple species from various research sites, and through comparative analyses of these data I explored trends and made assumptions that allowed me to sketch out various ecological interaction models. Unlike the previous project, where I was asked for rates and made various simulations, these data were used to fit a more realistic model. I researched the interaction in various areas between rabbits, arthropods, coyotes, plants, and weather information in order to determine how these factors interact with one another to create a complete ecological system. This was a great research experience!

Final Thoughts

Since I have participated in research experiences in various places within the United States, I strongly recommend taking part in a research experience outside of the university that you primarily attend. This has many advantages. It broadens your career options and your knowledge of science as a whole. In addition, it allows you to work on various projects with other scientists, thereby expanding your own professional network outside of your institution. Gaining broad research experiences are very valuable and certainly will help you in preparation for graduate school.

Brandon Brown is pursuing his undergraduate degree in applied mathematics at the National University of Singapore through the Education Abroad Program with the University of California, Irvine. For further information, please e-mail Brandon at hulk17m@hotmail.com or bbrown@uci.edu.