When Jeff R. Jorgensen, graduate student in Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology, steps out of a meeting with Scott Emr, Molecular Biology and Genetics, he’s reenergized, ready to charge back into the lab with new ideas and insight. The enthusiasm with which he talks about his work, in understanding how vacuolar membrane proteins are degraded and regulated, is infectious—even to a non-biologist. He attributes much of it to Emr.
“The biggest influence is how excited Scott has been,” Jorgensen says. “He’s invested in me and my project and is always encouraging me to be creative in the way I think about my work.”
Jorgensen is just one of more than 5,000 research graduate students at Cornell studying in more than 80 fields. Though no two graduate students have identical experiences, when asked about research at Cornell, they all repeat words like “supportive,” “respected,” “interdisciplinary,” and “collaborative.”
Lots of Intellectual Support
Cornell fosters a supportive environment, from the openness of professors to world-class facilities. “The faculty is very generous with their time and their resources, regardless of whether it is related to their project,” says Nimish Pujara, graduate student in Civil and Environmental Engineering.
When it comes to facing the struggles of conducting research, professors often provide necessary guidance. “Paul [McEuen] has this great ability to just see straight through to the simple part of the problem,” says Kathryn McGill, Physics, of her adviser. McGill works in McEuen’s lab manipulating graphene through origami and kirigami techniques (folding and cutting) in order to create flexible, stretchable electronics.
“Sometimes in your own project, you know so many details it can cloud your judgment and it’s hard to figure out what’s troubling your experiment,” she says. “Paul cuts through all of that and asks a simple question, and I realize, yes, that is exactly my problem!”
Beyond faculty expertise, students engage in seminars, reading groups, high-tech facilities, dissertation writing workshops, and more. Student-run reading groups are a particular strength of the English department, says Christine “Xine” Yao, graduate student, English, whose work looks at how science and law construct race, gender, and sexuality in 19th-century American literature.
For example, the American Reading Group, funded by the department and by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, hosts lectures by prominent 19th-century Americanists. “If you’re a grad student with initiative, there are a lot ways for you to create your own institution of people who have similar interests,” Yao says.
Resources such as the Cornell Statistical Consulting Unit (CSCU) have also proven valuable to students like Rachel Behler, graduate Sociology. Behler says that she often meets with the CSCU statisticians to troubleshoot data models and to consult on statistical programming. “I can’t believe we have access to people like that for free,” she says. “Cornell fosters an environment where it not only gives you the resources to do research, it allows you to check yourself to make sure you’re on the right track.”
Coupled with this strong support network is the intellectual freedom and independence Cornell affords its grad students. Diane Wong, graduate student, Government, says that she joined her department because it “encourages students to develop their own ways of answering questions and methods that they’re comfortable growing into.”
Wong studies how gentrification affects communities of color in New York City. She’s been grateful for the latitude, as she considers herself a mixed-methods researcher whose work is grounded in community engagement.
Dexter L. Thomas, East Asian Studies, says that his advisers, Naoki Sakai and Brett de Bary, Asian Studies, have always supported his less conventional research proposals and ideas.
“I’ve told my advisers that I want to do something approaching a documentary,” he says. “And they say, ‘Good, go for it.’ I don’t think I would get that response in a lot of other places.”
On the Leading Edge of Research
Graduate students at Cornell are fundamental to driving innovative and cutting-edge scholarship that influences fields from art history to nanomaterial science.
Pujara says that the quality of research produced by Phillip Liu, Civil and Environmental Engineering, attracted him to Cornell. Now a member of Liu’s lab, Pujara studies how long waves—applicable to tsunami waves—transform and break as they come into a coastline.
“The caliber of research at Cornell is excellent,” Pujara says. “You’re working on issues that have received little previous attention.”
Don-Hyung Ha, Materials Science and Engineering, also credits his PhD adviser’s expertise and work in nanoparticles as a deciding factor to study at Cornell. “Richard Robinson had great vision for the applications of nanoparticles,” he says.
“The interdisciplinary nature of research is unparalleled at Cornell,” says Elizabeth Murnane, Information Science.
When Ha arrived on campus, Robinson suggested that he look into nanoparticle application in lithium ion battery electrodes, which Ha succeeded in doing. He adds that “it’s not only about the engineering, we also want to understand the fundamentals of the nanoparticles we study.” Ha completed his doctorate with 13 publications, five on which he’s the first author.
Being surrounded by people who are working at the crest of their fields pushes graduate students to do the same, says Colin Jermain, graduate, Physics. “The standards are high, and that’s one of the main reasons I came to Cornell.”
Jermain works with Dan Ralph, Physics, on understanding how to apply spin transfer torque, a method used to manipulate magnets, to magnetic insulators. A potential avenue for the research is to build more efficient memory storage systems for gadgets like smartphones and computers.
Cornell’s reach goes beyond campus into the academic community at large. At the Population Association of America 2014 meeting, Behler presented a paper on how social networks influence unhealthy weight behavior and was recognized for the advanced methods she had developed.
“I know my methods are complicated in a good way because of the quality of research that professors expect out of me,” she says. “We’re making these big moves, not just asking theoretical questions but also developing new methods to do that.”
Elizabeth Murnane, Information Science, says she’s seen the same in her field. Speaking of this year’s Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference, which featured more than a dozen papers out of the department, she says that “in terms of best paper awards and honorable mentions and sheer volume, Cornell’s Information Science is a rising star.”
She adds that it goes beyond conference presentations. “Our research is evaluated on its ability to translate into real-world impact and its ripple effects over time. The emphasis is not just on publishing itself but on the future impacts and applications of those contributions.”
Essential: Collaborative and Interdisciplinary Work
Cornell graduate students praise the breadth of research that takes place at the university and say their advisers and departments encourage them to take advantage of it by exploring interdisciplinary and collaborative work.
“Cornell offers me the opportunity to bridge disciplines together,” Wong explains. “I don’t like to see boundaries, and in most of my research I’m engaged in so many different conversations with people across disciplines both in and outside of academia.” Wong says that she not only works closely with her adviser, Michael Jones-Correa, Government, but also with professors in the Asian American Studies and Africana Studies programs.
Yao describes Cornell as being “decentralized,” which gives students the opportunity to do more diverse projects and to take courses across departments. And Thomas says that being interdisciplinary “seems almost like an unspoken requirement.” A single professor doesn’t know everything, and he adds that “they’re totally fine with that and they want you to branch out.”
Lucky for graduate students, Cornell hosts expert faculty in every field. Even if an adviser doesn’t know the answer to a question, he or she probably knows who does. “We run into things in our lab that aren’t our lab’s specialty, but Scott might say, ‘We should talk to Jeff Pleiss about this. He would know exactly what to do,” Jorgensen says. “There’s this feeling that if it isn’t our expertise, there’s someone nearby who can help us.”
Shared resources, too, provide a space for synergetic conversations. Since many other labs on campus work in the Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility (CNF) on 2-D materials, McGill says they often meet and discuss the various types of research each does.
Oftentimes, working across disciplines is necessary to produce good research. Murnane says that her work is founded on this need. For example, she wants to discover new things about how people interact with and through technology, which benefits from an understanding of principles from behavioral and social sciences. She also wants to make technical contributions, such as new algorithms that enable systems to better model more nuanced user characteristics, such as emotions or social contexts.
“The interdisciplinary nature of research is unparalleled at Cornell,” says Murnane. “When we reach out to colleagues in other departments, typically they are very open to working together, and a major criteria when evaluating new faculty is their interest in collaboration across fields. Integrative research is seen as worthwhile.”
Natasha Bissonauth, Art History, puts it simply, “The interdisciplinary route is the future, and Cornell is pursuing it.”
A Place to Focus on Research
If you’re looking for a place to focus on research, then Cornell—and Ithaca at large—is an ideal environment, students say. “Ithaca has both enough distractions so you’re not bored, but not so many distractions that you can’t focus,” Yao says.
“It is the best place for research,” says Ha. “You have fantastic facilities. The faculty is great. You have a lot of opportunities. If you want to do research, I highly recommend coming to Cornell.”