Like many undergrads with a desire to become more involved in research, I didn’t know what options were available to me. If you’re feeling like this, know that I felt the same way when I arrived at college. Though I had heard of REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates) before, I had also assumed that they were far beyond the reach of someone like me: an ambitious sophomore who was interested in studying Environmental Studies and English.
I applied anyway, thinking that the difference in perspective would give me an edge in my application. There are hundreds of REU sites in the U.S. that host research programs for undergraduate students. These programs are either sponsored by the NSF (National Science Foundation) or by various universities. I think the best part of applying was choosing which REUs to apply to, since each program accommodates unique research. This process took longer than writing the actual application. I applied to a multitude of programs, ranging from phytoplankton ecology, which I was most familiar with, to shark behavior and coral reef research programs.
I ended up accepting an NSF REU position at MOTE Marine Laboratory, where I investigated the efficacy of brewer’s spent grain (BSG) as an algae inhibitor. Karenia is one of the most common red tide-causing species of algae, and I was floored with the knowledge that I’d be contributing to the field by working with this species that has been studied for decades. At the same time, the Imposter Syndrome was for sure present. In my program of 9 other REU interns, I was the only student from a small liberal arts college pursuing an interdisciplinary humanities degree of Environmental Studies and Creative Writing. However, I think what mattered most to me and my mentor that summer was my passion and tenacity for the research I was doing. I was coming in with a lot of experience in lab work and an extensive knowledge of HAB species. It became clear to me in a short manner of time that I lacked the understanding that some of my Bio and Chem peers had, but I was never short of my determination.
REUs are invaluable experiences that value passionate researchers who want to do big things in their field. In my opinion, they are less concerned with how much experience you have had in the lab prior to being accepted as they are with your passion for the subject, as well as your work ethic. A lot of what you do in a research REU seems similar to what grad students do when they are working on a research project. It’s a role that teaches you accountability, humility and resilience. I will never forget my time there, especially because of the people I met in my program who have continued to stay with me until today.
My biggest tip to students who are applying to REUs or thinking about applying is to do extensive research into the institution of the program you are applying for. Read about the faculty that work there and the previous REU recipients’ projects. Do not let your background or previous experience discourage you from these sorts of opportunities. My studies in Environmental Studies and English came in great use, especially when writing the final research paper. I was also cheered on by my lab mates who knew way more than me, but were happy to share their knowledge.
REU programs are highly coveted because of how rigorous and independent they are. Unlike many of my other research programs, I was given full control over my project, allowing me learn all aspects of research. With little instruction from our mentors, we were tasked to write our own proposals, research methods, run the experiment and collect data ourselves. I had little time to doubt myself with the responsibility of running a research experiment at the forefront of my mind. It was the most hands-on experience I had in research, and I am confident enough to call myself a scientist because of it.