Alumni Spotlight | September 2020
Undergraduate KU majors: Physics and Math, Class of 2005
Current occupation: Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Kansas
Research mentors while at KU: Bozenna Pasik-Duncan and Douglas McKay
Describe the undergraduate research/creative experience that you had while at KU: I had two experiences, one with Prof. Bozenna Pasik-Duncan in the Department of Mathematics and another with Prof. Douglas McKay in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. For the research in math, I worked in applied math. In particular, I helped develop a method to numerically approximate equations that were important in the field of economics and engineering. My physics research was in particle physics. I worked on developing a theory for some of the lightest particles. It had new properties different from current predictions. I worked on calculating how to observe these new predictions at experiment and how to differentiate between the predictions of the new and current/accepted theory.
Much of this research involved hand calculations and computer programming to obtain numerical results. This was important for the predictions in physics as well as the numerical approximations in the math project. Indeed, the math project developed out of a computer programming problem. My advisor, Prof. Pasik-Duncan, asked me to obtain results that required me to numerically approximate some equations. However, I couldn't find a method in the academic literature. So, I adapted a method from some well-known results to create a new method for the new types of equations.
Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned while doing undergraduate research?
A: Time management, self-motivation, and some computer skills. At the beginning, advisors do not really push hard for results. They will give you a problem, and wait for you to come back. Hence, you have to be self-motivated to complete the task and go talk to the faculty. This also takes time management to find time between classes to complete the projects. If you are not the driving force, the research will not get done.
The other thing was to think for yourself. Unlike classes, research is about seeking out problems that do not have answers yet, and then finding the answers. They cannot be looked up in a book. This also means you have to familiar with what has been done before. You want to build upon the past, not repeat it. This was most clear in my math research. The solution was not known and I had to do a deep dive into textbooks and papers to understand that. In the process, I found known results that could be built upon.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates who might be interested in doing research or creative scholarship?
A: First and foremost, go talk to your professors and ask them about their research. We like to talk about what we're working on. If their research sounds interesting, ask them if they have a research opportunity for you. Your professors will be honest about it. If you don't like the work you've started, it's okay to seek out other research opportunities as well. You don't have to make a career out of it yet, so use your time as a student to find what you like. (And more importantly, figure out what you absolutely do not want to do.) The point is, you should not be afraid to take the initiative. In fact, you usually need to be the one to start the conversation.
Computer programming skills are vital. Indeed, computing is often an easier way to get involved with the research. It doesn't take as much prior knowledge of the field.
Research is a job, although a fun one. It's a bit like the William Faulkner quote “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning." Set a schedule, and try to keep to it. This way you're always involved and making constant progress. When you're regularly in the thick of it, you get in the habit of doing the research and thinking in ways that help push the projects forward. These are muscles that have to be exercised and built.
If you run into a problem or roadblock, don't be afraid to ask your advisor or other people for help. Problems happen all the time to everybody and people with more experience may know how to overcome them. You are not unique in running into roadblocks. That being said, try to overcome the problems yourself first. Think about what's going on and how to solve it. It's good training for your own problem solving skills, which are essential for performing research.
You must be self-motivated. As stated above, you need to take the initiative to initiate the research. Also, you typically have to set your schedule and make progress your self. While research is a job, it's not your typical job. If you don't take initiative and motivate yoursel, you will not be successful.
Q: Do you use any of the skills or perspectives gained doing research in your current occupation? How so?
A: All of them. I'm an professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. A significant portion of my job is to perform research. In fact, I'm still doing theoretical particle physics. All the skill for self-motivation, time management, and calculational techniques I use all the time. If I don't do my research, nobody else is going to do it for me.
Q: Many undergraduate researchers are making decisions about what to do after they graduate from KU. Having been in those shoes, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Do you have any advice?
A: This is harder. I took the academic route, which has several fairly straightforward steps. Some general advice is to talk to your faculty advisor, graduate students, and postdocs regularly. Communication skills are vital. Also, if you enjoy what you're doing and want to continue, they will have advice on how to continue. You can get perspective on what it would be like to go for a Masters of PhD. Your mentors may also have contacts outside of academia that they can use to help you get a job, if that's what you want to do.
Pay close attention to what you enjoy and don't enjoy. It's very important to know what you dislike. For example, if you absolutely hate writing, an academic career at a university is probably not a good idea. Grants, papers, reports, etc. have to be written. I've heard professors say they are surprised how much of their job is writing.
Don't be afraid to change what you're doing. If you like it, go for it and continue. If you don't like what you're doing, seek out new opportunities. Especially while you're still in school. As you pursue a career, changing what you're doing becomes increasingly difficult. Use this opportunity to determine what you're good at and enjoy.
Overall, I've said this above, but talk to people and get their advice. For one thing, you're always going to need references, no matter what you do. Those references will be much better if your mentors know who you are and are invested in your success. For another thing, you're making a big decision and advice is always useful. However, in the end you have to make the decisions, nobody else. So get advice from many different people and think about it. Determine what you agree with and what you disagree with, and decide on a course of action. It's okay to disagree with advice, this is your life. Finally, an important point about that is don't take those disagreements personally. It is possible to disagree and be friendly.