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Undergraduate Researchers

Allison Kelly

Allison Kelly, Chemistry

NIST Summer Researcher

How did you find out about the NIST/SURF research opportunity?

I attended a seminar on Undergraduate Research opportunities presented by Janet McGlynn, where NIST was highlighted.

Was the application difficult? Did you have help with the application? How many places did you apply to for summer, 2011?

I did not find it difficult to apply. Most of the summer applications require basically the same material. The most difficult part was writing the personal statement (see below), which can be difficult for any application. I attended a personal statement work shop and I asked for a lot of advice from fellow students more experienced with applying for research positions. I applied to somewhere between five and nine programs.

What project were you assigned at NIST?

I was working with Dr. Lee Richter with organic solar cells. I used ellipsometry to study and characterize the interactions of the components of these devices.

What did you know about this field before you started?

Very little. I knew absolutely nothing of the experimental technique I employed and only had the smattering of background from my undergraduate classes to help me grasp the underlying concepts of the work. But I found so many willing tutors.

What did you learn from the project? Does any of this apply to your work in your major at UMBC?

I learned more than I can realize. I gained a lot of lab experience, as my mentor allowed me to be very involved in the hands-on work of the study. Additionally, I learned about more about the field of physical chemistry, which has guided my graduate school plans. And, perhaps most importantly I learned about how to think about science, and research science in particular.

Who did you work most closely with over the summer?

I worked most closely with my mentor, who personally oversaw my project. I also leaned greatly on the skills and tutelage of several postdocs in our research group.

Did you live with the other NIST/SURF students? What was that like?

I lived in the provided housing. The facilities were very nice, and the chance to participate in group activities was a welcome relaxation.

What do you want to do next summer?

I’d like to pursue another internship. Possibly at the Maryland Science Center, but also possibly returning to NIST or a similar experience.

What would you say to other UMBC students about getting involved in research as an undergraduate?

Do it. It may take work and planning to get an internship, but it will broaden your mind. Both in the skills and knowledge you will take away, and the chance to experience what you may be spending the rest of your life doing.

Research Reflections:

On the grandiose level we talk about understanding the nature of the universe or discovering truth by logically doing things over and over again. But in reality, on the day to day level, scientists sit around and ask small questions. We don’t question the nature of reality; we question the structure of one polymer. We don’t discover a new way to move mountains, we talk about tossing pebbles. Every scientific leap is preceded by years of miss-steps and baby steps.

Scientists acquire knowledge in a different way. Throughout school and college we are taught to read, to search, that somewhere, someone has the answer. But what happens when the reference book doesn’t have that value? When Google responds to a yes-or-no question with a shrug? What happens when no one has the answer? Our simple questions become complicated when there is no where to look them up. But we are scientists, and we can test it. So step by step, simple fact upon simple fact, we try to nail down truth.

Science doesn’t always work. In school, when I suddenly measure negative Kelvin in the middle of a lab class, I don’t celebrate redefining the laws of physics; I realize once again that I am an incredibly flawed human being. Research does not have this comfort. When something goes “wrong” (and it will) there is not the comfort of knowing it should have gone “right.” Such is the nature of research: expecting the unexpected. Because science teaches us, not the other way around.

I entered my undergraduate career confident that I was going to become a scientist so that I could understand everything. It may sound like I have been disillusioned about my career choice, that my view of science has shrunk. Not at all. For a summer, I took a corner of the universe and made it mine. Yes, my project was small and hardly life changing, but for a summer, I dedicated my heart and mind to understanding and mapping out that corner. Ten weeks to answer three questions and discover twenty more. Did my view of science shrink? No, instead it rose up in front of me as a mammoth labyrinth of questions that would take an eternity to answer. But working at NIST showed me I didn’t have to answer them all, not alone. I tried to answer one question, but next to me Marlon was answering another, down the hall Matt was answering yet another and in the building across campus, Xinran, Nayool and Ro were answering still more. Science is about much more than simply my ability to puzzle through the universe. It is about a network of thousands of curious, meticulous people working together to answer each other’s questions. That is what I’ve seen at NIST, and that has driven me closer to, not farther from, a career in research. Because being a part of this collaborative community of intelligent, curious people is a more inspiring vision than plodding along on my own solitary intellectual quest.