On Growing Research Roots

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On Growing Research Roots

An undergraduate research advisor’s influence  lasts beyond college


Rachael Roettenbacher, Graduate Student, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

The author poses for a photo with the MDM Observatory (left) and Kitt Peak National Observatory (right). Photo courtesy of  Rachael Roettenbacher.

I was sitting in a room of about 20 graduate students recently when a visiting astronomer asked whose research projects were related to their undergraduate research. He wanted to know what had gotten us interested in our current projects. More than half of the students, myself included, proudly raised our hands.

Many of the students spoke about how their undergraduate advisors had inspired them. That was also the case for me. I love starspots, which are analagous to sunspots but on other stars. They were the subject of my first research project as an undergraduate, for which I received an SPS Outstanding Student Award for Undergraduate Research. 

My affinity to starspots surely had something to do with the challenges of understanding magnetic fields and imaging techniques, but it also owed much to the encouragement of Robert Harmon, my undergraduate advisor at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. He cultivated my attachment to these dark regions of distant cool stars.

I met my research mentor as a student in his observational astronomy class. After I learned about summer research opportunities on campus, I took a chance and applied to work with him. Soon after, we began working together on my first research project.

I spent many nights observing spotted stars and my days analyzing and modeling the data I had collected. This opportunity was incredible; I was working to find answers to questions that no one knew how to definitively answer. I had little practical knowledge when I began but was encouraged to ask as many questions as I needed to. Research was different from coursework, in which the professor knew what answers I was supposed to reach. Instead, research was a collaborative effort to find the answers. I realized that I was working with Dr. Harmon rather than for him.

My never-ending list of questions about the research led to long discussions with my advisor that evolved over the semesters, from questions about how to sort through literature to conversations about what I might consider doing beyond college. In the course of these discussions, my relationship with my advisor morphed from one based solely on research to one in which I realized he was invested in my future.

The support and encouragement I received from my advisor molded my path, which led me to pursue a graduate degree in astronomy at the University of Michigan. Dr. Hamon became became an ally and role model, and I still collaborate with him. Stumbling upon someone who fed my curiosity and believed in me not only during my first research project, but at every step along my path, has been essential to the progress I have so far enjoyed.

Fostering a relationship with your advisor is an important part of an undergraduate research experience. In order to get as much as possible out of a research experience, you need to be comfortable asking questions. You should be confident in what you know and be willing to fill gaps in your knowledge. The best research advisors encourage this curiosity in students by providing opportunities to question and facilitating methods for working toward answers. Research advisors should also lead by example, by being conscientious and ethical researchers themselves. //

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