Undergraduate Reflection: How research helped me most with life outside the lab
I often laugh when people ask me about my experiences as an undergraduate researcher as a non-US citizen. I stumble, fall, and keep rolling like a solid rock.
Doing research helped me to become a better communicator, reader, and coder. But more than that, I found a supportive community that cultivates and encourages me to step forward in science and in life. I believe the science community has greater sympathy with English learners due to the open mindedness and diverse background of researchers. They care about science and personal growth.
I have a habit of talking to strangers on public transportation. In my first year of college, I started a conversation with a random college student on the bus. After five minutes, she commented: “Your English sucks so bad. I think you should stop speaking in English.” I replied beaming with a smile: “My English is horrible. That is precisely why I am speaking to you in English, to make it better.” I explained to this stranger how my high school principal asked me to promise her one thing in my first day: make new friends from different groups of people and speak English to them even if some of they can speak your other language. Unlike the general public, the people I interact with in the research community will not harass me for who I am but they will constructively attack my idea with numerous brilliant suggests for improvement. They listen attentively and try to understand the idea and concept behind my accent.
That same style of living, being a great listener while analyzing the idea but not the person, leads me on my journey. In my last year of college, after two years in my lab, I received verbal attack from a stranger whom I never had an interaction with previously. I was talking to my newly made friend from Germany about photography and taking gap year while in college. We were sitting on a bench for three looking out of the window from a train. This white gentleman in his fifties decided to walk toward us and sit next to my friend, the only spot left on our bench, speaking across my friend’s face to reach me.
He started off by commenting about how people like me, coming from China, already had a cheap and easy college degree from other country, came to US to take jobs away from US citizens, who struggled with college debt, this is not fair … I calmly let him finished his strand of thoughts. I explained to him that I am not Chinese, nor do I speak Chinese, though I tried to learn it a few year ago, I am a current student at UC San Diego and did not have a B.S. degree yet, and my degree still comes with a few thousands dollars in debt. I asked him why he made those assumptions about me and what he think can solve the problem. I asked him to elaborate on his perspective and asked my friend on his perspective on having free college education in Germany.
"[The research community], they listen attentively and try to understand the idea and concept behind my accent. "
He explained how he felt discriminated during job hunting and interview process. Again I asked him why he thought so. He talked about the psychology test he had to take prior to the interview and he is an electrical engineer and that is irrelevant. He also stated that he likes to work by himself and he got discriminated against when showing his reference. I asked him what he think is the purpose of those tests or questions. I explained to him that the psychology test is a common procedure with a lot of hospitals and companies to see if the employee’s philosophy align with the organization’s mission. If he is not a team player and the companies are looking for one, then the job is not a good fit for him. I also broke down the statistic of how many jobs you have to apply before getting interview and an job offer. I asked for his suggested solution, we went discussion about the union...
By asking more and more questions, I made the man realized that employment is an complex problem and blaming me would not solve his problem. At the end, he apologized regarding his assumption and said he appreciated the conversation before leaving our bench.
Without my research experience, I probably will walk away from this man instead of spending an hour asking questions to understand his point of view, breaking his idea down, explaining to him how things work and creating peace for myself in the process. Doing research built my confidence on solid rock, and has allowed me stand up for my ideas. People in my lab inspired me with their passion and made me realize that hard work and perseverance are what you need to be a researcher. I felt happiness cracking through a procedure, sharing my research progress, or becoming popular by answering kids’ question on a bus ride about atoms and volcanoes. Without my mentoring experience in my lab, I would not have the confidence to take up leadership roles I was nominated for in student organizations. I never imagined that I would have the power to influence and lead others.
I grew so much. I could not imagine how my life would turn out without my research experience.