Robert D. Guber ’15 studied alcoholic liver, diabetes, and obesity. Lipi Gupta ’15 worked on reducing beam emittance in the Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR), a 768-meter ring that is part of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), to produce brighter s-rays. Sang Min Han ’15 examined toadfish to create a mathematical model for vertebrate vocalization. Swati Sureka ’15 engineered nucleic acid to develop DNA materials. Teresa O. Danso-Danquah ’15 questioned available support systems for people and siblings of those with disabilities.
Each of these Cornell graduates from the Class of 2015 was an undergraduate researcher.
“Cornell students are lucky because there are many opportunities. There’s so much variety in research at Cornell,” says Gupta, a physics major, who worked with Professor Georg H. Hoffstaetter, Physics. Guber, who worked with Professor Ling Qi, Nutritional Sciences, agrees. “There are so many professors and faculty here that you really can do research in anything you want—in the humanities, social sciences, everything."
Go for it!
Starting research as an undergraduate might seem daunting. You have little to no experience. You’re only beginning your life in academia. You might be interested in something you don’t know much about.
Cornell faculty eases the process by encouraging and welcoming undergraduates into their labs and on projects. Many undergraduates found that they only had to contact professors whose work resonated with their interests or professors whose classes they enjoyed. Thousands of students at Cornell pursue research for academic credit each school year.
“Cornell has done a really good job institutionalizing undergraduate research so that it is a pursuit that’s open to the whole student body,” says Sureka, who worked in Professor Dan Luo’s lab, Biological and Environmental Engineering. “There’s a culture of research, and it’s something that everyone is encouraged to try.”
Guber says that after a year and a half in the lab, Qi gave him the opportunity to start his own project examining alcoholic livers. “It’s a big problem where people don’t understand the consequences associated with it, and it’s not a well-understood mechanism,” he says. By tackling this research with guidance from Qi and postdoctorate Guojun Shi, Guber says he had the freedom to bring forth his own ideas and experiments, which was “one of the most valuable experiences.”
The university also offers many resources to undergraduates interested in research. The Cornell Undergraduate Research Board is a group of undergraduates that host events and programs such as poster sessions and publishes the Research Paper, a twice-yearly publication that profiles undergraduate researchers. Students can access a trove of information through Cornell's Office of Undergraduate Research, which provides everything from tips on how to find an adviser to lists of funding sources.
Scholarship programs such as the Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholars and the Summer Research Scholars Program provide financial support to students who want to pursue research on campus. Involvement in these programs can help build a support group within the research community. By finding a network of people who are in research, students realize the true benefits
Sang Min Han, an electrical and computer engineering major, says, “Students at Cornell do not have to travel far to find great research opportunities.”
Cornell undergraduates aren’t just tasked with doing rote experiments or library work—they have a direct impact on cutting-edge research across disciplines.
“I felt like I was putting my time and effort into something that was real,” Gupta says of her simulation work on CESR. Unlike class problem sets, her research had real-world impact on the Cornell synchrotron. Engineers at CHESS could look at Gupta’s research and figure out the feasibility and costs of implementing her suggested changes.
“Cornell has done a really good job institutionalizing undergraduate research so that it is a pursuit that’s open to the whole student body…There’s a culture of research, and it’s something that everyone is encouraged to try.”
The work of Danso-Danquah, Industrial and Labor Relations, on the New York State Siblings Needs Assessment directly affected the types of support and services the state can offer to siblings of individuals with disabilities. “Everything I do, I try to make sure it’s a service. It’s about others, and investing in others is also investing in myself,” she says.
Undergraduates also have the opportunity to make an impact in student-run labs. Outside of Professor Luo’s lab, Sureka participated in Cornell iGem, a project team made up entirely of undergraduates across disciplines. In 2013, the group worked with the local company Ecovative Design to engineer a complex fungi used in a biodegradable Styrofoam substitute.
“For the first time in the competition’s history, we were able to genetically engineer a complex fungus,” says Sureka, a double major in biology and chemistry. “It was a great tie between academic research and entrepreneurship.”
Working closely with professors, learning technical skills, and broadening intellectual experiences are among the many rewards of doing research as an undergraduate at Cornell. Undergraduate researchers have said that the research experience does not become a chore. Cornell wants students to enjoy the involvement, noting that one of the most important skills learned from research is how to be independently motivated.
Sureka, a biology and chemistry double major, said that beyond gaining life skills, research often complements and enhances classroom learning. Using techniques likes PCR (polymerase chain reaction) in Luo’s lab enabled her to better understand the mechanism behind the technique and its power for various applications—something she says is harder to do in lab classes.
Doing research also enables more opportunities to interact with professors. “Students get an opportunity to build close relationships with professors who can provide valuable advice both academically and professionally,” says Sang Min Han. The discussions between students and professors that take place in the research setting are unlike anything in the classroom—it’s a different kind of learning with high value. Min Han worked in the labs of several professors, including Bruce Land, Aaron Rice, and Andrew Bass, Neurobiology and Behavior, as well as others.
Research at Cornell is about being part of an exciting and supportive community. These graduates from the Class of 2015 not only wanted experiences outside of their curriculums, they wanted to find a group of people for support and with whom they could bond. And they found that. “There’s a level of intellectual stimulation just knowing you’re in a community that really celebrates each other’s accomplishments, is wowed by it, and is interested in it,” says Gupta.
It’s an unparalleled experience, as Guber says, “It’s really learning to think in a different way, and that’s something that nothing else can do except participating directly in research.”
Where They Are Now
Robert Guber is a postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award fellow (IRTA) at the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke. He works in the lab of Kenneth H. Fischbeck, Neurogenetics Branch. Lipi Gupta pursues a PhD in accelerator physics at the University of Chicago. Sang Min Han is a PhD student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. Swati Sureka is on a Keasbey Memorial Foundation Scholarship at the University of Edinburgh. She is a graduate student in Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies. Teresa Danso-Danquah is an associate in Capital One’s Human Resources Rotation Program in Washington D.C.