Research Exchanges: How to make them productive

Hello World!

After I returned from Singapore, I dove right into the annual retreat for the NSF EBICS research center (see this blog entry for more on EBICS). Since the retreat was held at Illinois this year, and since I’m a member of the Student Leadership Council, I played the part of “hostess” to all the visiting trainees and had a wonderful time doing so! But I have to admit… it’s a little hard to sell “downtown” Champaign to folks from Boston and Atlanta.

The retreat was jam-packed with research talks, ethics discussions, and best of all: networking opportunities with students, faculty, and members of the external and industrial advisory committees. It was truly a unique experience to be surrounded by a group of researchers who are all coordinating to work toward the same goal, and I learned more from these personal interactions than I could ever achieve remotely! I guess this means I haven’t fully embraced the digital age…

After some discussions with students from a partner lab at MIT, I learned that they had optimized a protocol that I really needed to learn in order to improve my bio-bots research. At around the same time, my advisor mentioned that we had funding available for inter-site “research exchanges” to facilitate knowledge transfer between EBICS labs. I couldn’t pass up such an ideal opportunity and launched into planning my next research trip (and the corresponding Mechanics of Motion blog entry)!

To prove that I take my own advice, I’m going to draw from my “tips and tricks for research success” as listed in my Singapore Week 6 wrap-up. We can consider this a miniature social experiment to test whether my tips are actually useful!

Tip # 1: Finding an appropriate research match is crucial.
Well… that’s taken care of! I have a connection with students and professors from a partner lab who work on a project very similar to mine. Furthermore, they have a protocol that can be readily modified to suit my purposes. Consider this box checked!

Tip # 2: Match your research goals with your time constraints.
Now, contrary to how my blog posts may make me appear, I am not a glamorous jet-setting graduate student. On most days, you can find me slogging away in my office at MNTL munching on a salad from Chipotle. Being away from the lab makes me feel anxious and uneasy! I love doing research and a decrease in standard levels of productivity is rather depressing. For this reason, I set an extremely limited time frame for my research exchange: 3 days. Keeping in line with Tip #2, however, I kept my goals for this research exchange focused: 1) Observe and perform the protocol multiple times; 2) Ask lots of questions!

Tip # 3: Keep your goals dynamic – think on your feet!
Considering my focused goals and brief time frame, you would think this was mostly a given. However, things are never as simplistic as they seem! I had heard descriptions of the protocol I wanted to learn several times before during talks and presentations. However, when I actually observed the procedure, I found that I had missed several important design considerations and parameters in the setup that weren’t apparent from previous discussions. Seeing these in “real life” shifted my frame of reference significantly and made me reconsider how I would implement the protocol in my own bio-bots research.

Tip # 4: Make every experience count, and stay optimistic.
My main goal for this experience was to have my questions answered. To give you a sense of context, let me first explain that I am the grown-up version of the little child who follows you around endlessly asking “But why?” To have the undivided attention of a post-doc who was an expert in the protocol I wanted to learn was absolutely fantastic, and I didn’t let a single question go to waste. I wish every learning experience could be that dynamic and filled with interesting discussions! Over three days, I performed the multi-step procedure two to three times, asked lots of questions, ordered all the reagents and tools I would need to replicate the procedure in Illinois, and put together a game plan for my return to MNTL.

Mission = very much accomplished. It looks like my tips and tricks for research success are in fact useful. Of course, I wrote them, so it would be a little tragic if I couldn’t implement them!

As always, before wrapping up a blog entry, I will share my tourist adventures! I’d been to Boston before, but still did the standard rounds of exploring the MIT and Harvard campuses, walking the Freedom Trail, grabbing a gourmet (veggie) burger and frappe at Mr. Bartley’s, and of course… standing in line for a cannoli at the legendary Mike’s Pastry! I was extra lucky to do this research exchange at the same time as another student from UC Merced, so I had a partner in exploration as well as science. Which is a good thing, because I have the worst sense of direction and should never be left to wander the Boston “T” subway network alone.

After a long time away from my regular Urbana-Champaign routine, I’m honestly thrilled to be back home. Morning runs around campus, afternoon fro-yo, and long days of productive research constitute an ideal day in the life of a graduate student.

The only slight damper in all this revelry is… I have my qualifying exam in August! I’m a little scared, but I’ve been studying really hard, I have lots of data to show, and I’m trusting that everything will work out magically in the not-so-distant future. Wish me luck!

I’m giving a research talk at the BMES annual meeting in San Antonio this fall, which is the next research-related travel adventure I foresee. So until I’m back “in motion”… toodles!