Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Climbing Mt. Everest: the undergraduate researcher

by Elizabeth Wiggins with input from Eleanor Middlemas
Cobb lab undergraduate researcher Liz Wiggins presents her
research to Cobb lab alum Jud Partin at the 2012 Fall Meeting
of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

I like to think of the journey from student to scientist as a marathon. Obtaining both an undergraduate and graduate degree is a lengthy process on its own. Once research is added into the mix this journey becomes much more complex, and rewarding. As an undergraduate senior preparing for graduate school I have found the path for my marathon is not an easy road, it is quite the opposite. But now the goals I am close to achieving are beyond what I could have ever imagined.
At the start of Eleanor’s and my fall semester, Dr. Cobb casually dropped Mt. Everest onto our marathon path. She gave us the choice to climb, or rather sprint up this mountain and be light-years ahead of our peers, or to take the easy way out and bypass it completely. We chose Mt. Everest, of course. Along with taking 18 credit hours of coursework (a hefty amount at Georgia Tech) my marathon would now consist of taking the GRE, finishing my own research project, writing a proposal for the NSF graduate research fellowship, presenting a poster of my research at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and applying to graduate school – all within 5 months. Eleanor’s path would be similar except she would also be participating in her first field expedition to Borneo.
Cobb lab undergraduate researcher Eleanor Middlemas
posing with Kim at her poster at the 2012 Fall Meeting
of the American Geophysical Union.

The process began in the summer and early fall with locating and contacting prospective graduate research advisers. For me, this process was terrifying but has helped me learn how to network as a scientist. The search itself makes the whole world feel like it is at your fingertips; just find the most interesting and hottest research out there and begin to make yourself a part of it. After countless emails, phone conversations, and Skype meetings with prospective advisers both Eleanor and I have found some incredible programs that we recently applied for.
Getting a NSF fellowship is a career- defining achievement, and affords more flexibility in the choice of graduate research. It is also the most pristine, polished, and time consuming application I have ever completed. In the course of two months each of the three essays went through at least 10 drafts before they were finished. Add this load in with normal school work, research in the lab, and studying for/taking the GRE and our Mt. Everest comes into plain sight.
Liz collecting fossil corals on Christmas
Island during our May, 2012 expedition.
There wasn’t even enough time for a sigh of relief after the NSF application was officially submitted. In less than two weeks we would be presenting our research posters at AGU. Entering into a new state of panic and exhaustion, I began to truly feel like a real scientist. Long days evolved into long nights in the lab, but in the end I had a beautiful poster with (mostly) completed research results to present.
Attending the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union is a mind-opening experience full of endless opportunity, although to the rest of the world it probably seems more like a festival for earth science nerds. Along with presenting our research and enjoying other presentations, we were able to meet and mingle with prospective advisers and graduate students in their labs. The entire experience has exponentially increased my desire to continue on this path towards becoming a scientist, fully understanding all that entails.
Eleanor and Danja Mewes, another Cobb lab
undergrad, at Gunung Mulu National Park,
Malaysian Borneo, during our October, 2012
caving expedition.
 Winter break allowed us time to apply to our chosen graduate schools. Back at school we will be wrapping up our research projects and beginning the next leg of the journey – writing a manuscript for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. To enter graduate school with a first-author publication under your belt is an impressive achievement. It also means that we will have experience in how to write (and hopefully publish) a scientific paper. As we complete this leg of the marathon, our futures are bright, and hopeful.