Case Study: Kayleigh

My name is Kayleigh, and I’m a chemical engineering major with a minor in law and public policy at Northeastern University. I will be going into my second year in the fall of 2021, and I’m on a five-year track with three co-ops. My end goal is to be an intellectual property lawyer, but I plan to engage in research along the way. In the spring of 2021, I was involved in an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center called the Center for Translational Applications of Nanoscale Multiferroic Systems (TANMS) as a student in their Undergraduate Research Program. I worked in the Sun Lab at Northeastern with two undergraduate partners and a mentor who was in the process of earning her Ph.D. We did research regarding ferroelectric materials. I learned a lot working in this lab, as materials science is not my major and I had no experience with ferroelectrics before this, but I also learned a lot about research in general regardless of the topic.

My group hit a lot of snags during our project, such as a two-month delay in the delivery of a shadow mask we designed and the delay of replacement cables for our Radiant system when it was not working. My mentor shared with us that this is common when conducting research and that researchers spend most of their time either fixing something or doing background research on a topic rather than collecting data. Unfortunately, we only had 12 weeks to conduct our research, and had we had more time, we could have extended our project significantly. 

I did some data analysis research during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and I found that I enjoyed the hands-on aspect significantly more than simply inputting and analyzing data. In our spare time at the lab, we also built the majority of an “80/20” table, but it came without instructions. I was able to help figure out how to put this table together without step-by-step instructions, which gave me confidence in figuring out problems without direct supervision and instructions. It seems small, but it’s something I’ve never done before. I was nervous going into the lab because I had no experience and knew nothing about the topics, but both my mentor and a lab partner who had experience in the area were both very open and helpful whenever I had questions. 

My advice to other students of underrepresented groups who are going to participate in research is to never be afraid to ask questions. No question is a stupid question; you should always know what you’re doing in the lab and your mentor likely won’t mind explaining something to you if you’re confused. On the other end, as a mentor, don’t treat any question as a stupid question. Additionally, it was nice, as a woman, that one of my lab partners and my mentor were also women because I didn’t feel as alone. It’s always good to invite as many members of underrepresented groups as possible, but it would be fantastic for those members if they weren’t viewed as token minorities and weren’t alone in the lab.