Earlier this month my alma mater, the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, posted “2013: A Year of Milestones” and two of the twelve milestones involved my undergraduate research advisors. My “hey I know those guys” excitement was abruptly replaced with a sense of loss. I had been given a golden opportunity in college to form a relationship with these two, but lacked the foresight to take advantage.
In my final two years of undergrad I struggled with the same question that all undergrads face, “What am I going to do?” The standard plan amongst my peers was to enter the sexy world of oil refining and specialty chemicals manufacturing and make lots of money to taunt our <insert esoteric liberal arts field> majoring friends with as they moved home with mom and dad. However, upon experiencing the specialty chemical manufacturing industry first hand as a summer intern with Albemarle, I started to question the plan and went back to school ready to give a life of research a try. (First aside: a life of research is esoteric and may lead to moving home with mom and dad too. Second aside: esoteric liberal arts majors, your network will be your best hope to avoid moving home!)
The two labs I found my way into were, first, the lab of Dr C. Grant Willson where I completed a year of research on base quenchers in semiconductor photoresist materials for my Plan II honors thesis, and second, the lab of Dr Nicholas Peppas where my research on porous polymer biomaterials became my senior engineering project. Both of these renowned researchers have won a dizzying number of awards and have produced an insane body of research, but, most importantly, they are both exemplary mentors. Looking back, through the eyes of a PhD, the amount of respect their graduate students had, and routinely expressed, for these two men is rare in the academic research. How did I take advantage of these priceless opportunities? I didn’t, not at all.
I saw Dr Willson frequently and would freeze and panic every time. I was completely incapable of forming a relationship. Back then even the most approachable faculty members were intimidating figures of genius and authority and who was I to waste their time? In addition to the fear, part of it could have been the arrogance of youth (I don’t need anyone’s help to succeed), and part of it could have been laziness (it’s hard and I don’t have time to invest in this right now), but whatever the reasons, I did nothing to foster relationships and, when I left the labs, I did nothing to maintain the connections.
Equally riveting image from my senior project. There should be holes. There are no holes.
In 2013, Dr Willson was awarded the Japan Prize, the engineering equivalent of a Nobel Prize, and Dr Peppas was honored with the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) highest award, the Excellence in Engineering Education Award. When I saw these announcements I was filled with pride for having been briefly associated with both these individuals, but the pride was quickly replaced with great regret at having missed my opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with either one.
The moral, undergraduates, is build your network now! Take off the blinders of youth and look around, overcome any arrogance, any laziness, and be bold. Soon you will want to enter the work force or graduate school and both will require letters of recommendation. Who better to write them than faculty who can cite specific examples of your exceptional talent? Once at work or in graduate school, mentorship will instantly become crucial to your career. Faculty, postdocs, and graduate students want to help you, they want to form relationships with you, and they want you to succeed. It gets lonely holding office hours with yourself. I get excited every time I hear from one of the undergraduates I mentored at Boston College and would go above and beyond to help them succeed. Learn from my mistakes and go forth and conquer!