How do I get involved in undergraduate research? Five tips to follow

Danhao “Spark” Ma, a fifth-year senior majoring in energy engineering, got involved in undergraduate research as a freshman at Penn State Altoona. When he transferred to the University Park campus two years later, Ma’s professor in Altoona introduced him to a colleague at the new campus to help him further his undergraduate research experience. In the past four years, Ma has presented multiple projects the Penn State’s Undergraduate Exhibition and published two academic papers. Based on his experience at the University, Ma, an international student from Shanghai, shares five pieces of advice for new college students.

International student takes advantage of opportunities at Penn State

Danhao Ma or Spark, the name his American friends know him by, is a student from Shanghai, China. From a young age he has always wanted to explore and experience more academically than he believed China could offer. When his parents offered to allow him to attend high school in the U.S., he jumped at the chance, landing in Atchison, Kansas. In search of a good engineering school to continue his studies, he chose Penn State, where as an undergraduate researcher, he is working on the next generation of power cells -– flexible batteries. These batteries are bendable with a fraction of the volume and weight of the ones we use today.

C Roy Parker

1. Get involved right away

Ma said that one of the best things to do when you arrive at campus is to get involved in campus organizations that cater to different interests you may have. “That’s a good way to get to know your classmates and college friends with similar interests to you,” he said.

During his first semester, Ma joined the mathematics club at Penn State Altoona. The next year, Ma became the group’s president.

He recommends that international students in particular find cultural organizations to join since they might not be traveling to see family as often as other students might. “I was a 14-hour flight away from home, so I had a lot of free time to spend,” he said.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask

Ma secured his first experience with undergraduate research simply by asking his professor, Kofi Adu, if he could learn more. “In my case, I took a physics class and found it was interesting, and I wanted to dig in more than what we covered in class,” he said.

Ma wanted to make a good impression on Adu and decided to approach him after the semester ended. “I tried to prove myself and show him that I was active in learning physics. I paid attention,” Ma said. “I think respect is important for good communication between students and professors. Professors, of course, are always willing to help you, but if professors know you care about their subjects, they’re more motivated to do that.”

3. Be patient

Ma said that is important to remember that undergraduate students are still new and have a lot to learn when they enter their first research experience, so it is important to start out slow and soak up information. “By saying ‘how can I help,’ from my perspective, I expect to help with work, even with cleaning the beakers and those kind of things, which you can do as a freshman just to get started. And then, after the professor sees your contributions, they’ll be more willing to give you small projects.”

Ma initially learned how to prepare carbon nanotubes, which are tiny pieces of carbon rolled up. While continuously performing the same task could have gotten repetitive, he worked hard and made sure to pick up on bits and pieces of information along the way. Eventually, Ma began to get more responsibilities given to him. “After that semester, he taught me how to think through the research process,” Ma said. “We started to think, ‘How can we apply this material in the real world?’ ”

Initially, “we don’t really know what research is,” he said of undergraduate students. “What we learn in class is fixed knowledge from textbooks. These facts have been proved for decades, and it’s always right. This is different from research, which is exploring the unknown. It’s quite interesting because everything you find out might not be following your expectations.”

4. Make use of campus resources

Ma said it’s important for students to learn how to use campus resources early on so they are comfortable using them when needed. “Using the library online databases are really important,” Ma said. “It’s like using Google. You get on the library sources, which are free to Penn State students. You can freely download all the papers you’re looking for.”

Ma said that introductory English classes give a brief introduction, but for the more complicated searches, “librarians are always willing to help you.”

Additionally, Ma recommends international students check in with resources like the University Office of Global Programs early on. Instead of trying to figure out the details of moving to a new country, “it’s really helpful for when you start out your daily life in the United States,” he said. “For instance, when renting an apartment, trying to get a driver’s license, it’s really helpful.”

5. Explore different fields of study

Many students don’t know what they want to study when they enter college, and undergraduate research offers the chance to experience different fields of study in real-world scenarios. “Everyone has the ability to pick and choose,” Ma said.

“That’s the beauty of the undergraduate research experience. You can try something in a semester, and you can get out of it if you don’t like it,” he said. “It’s always good to start finding your interests early on. It helps you to make better decisions later on.”

Ma has worked with three professors on various projects while in school. “I don’t think it’s possible to get a clear picture of what you’re going to become, but it’s always nice to keep exploring,” Ma said. “Ask yourself, ‘Can I do this?’ and just go try it. If you don’t like it, it’s good because you will know what you’re not interested in, which will help you to shape your direction more clearly.”

Last Updated August 25, 2014