Embrace the Unknown – Becoming a Researcher

Getting Started with Research

Regardless of your academic interests, you can participate in research. I’m not referring to synthesizing and summarizing papers and articles about a particular topic. I’m talking about embracing the unknown: asking questions, investigating problems, exploring different solutions, and evaluating your results. From History, Literature, or Music to Chemistry, Computer Science, or Math, you can get exposed to the fundamentals of research through the First Experiences in Research course as early as your second semester at Pitt! However, there are several other actions you can take to get exposed to research anytime throughout your undergraduate career at Pitt.

Surfing the Internet. If you want to do research, you are going to have to send numerous emails into the void of the internet. But how does one even find who to email in the first place? Great question! Just as I tell my mentees, the solution is surfing the internet. Each academic field tends to have their own way of expressing and advertising their research interests online. For computer science specifically, it is very common that a researcher will have a Google Scholar, a Twitter, a university or industry affiliated website, and a personal website. These are all great places to go to learn about what others do and what interests you the most. Once you have identified several people that interest you, reach out to them, reach out to their lab coordinator, or reach out to PhD students or Postdocs currently working in their lab. Before you send your email, I highly recommend reading this guide from Berkeley on how to effectively craft your cold email.

Curiosity is the single most powerful tool to drive humanity forward.

Edison Lightbulb on Malibu Pier – Malibu, California ~ 2019 — Photo by Katelyn Morrison

Curiosity, Enthusiasm, & Passion. Your personality and outlook on learning how to become a researcher versus what you will be doing for a given research project is key. It is important that you are not too picky when looking for a research project in the beginning or your research career. Don’t be afraid to join a project that you have little knowledge about – embrace the unknown. Many specific skills gained from projects are transferable and the research methods you learn are invaluable. Be curious, enthusiastic, and passionate. If you are, I guarantee you that you will have the opportunity to be a part of the research project or lab of your dreams.

Where I am today

I got to where I am today by embracing the unknown, surfing the internet, and being open-minded. I learned about a new professor, Prof. Malihe Alikhani, who started at Pitt through Twitter and course registrations. I found Prof. Alikhani on Twitter, Google Scholar, and her lab website to help me understand her research interests better. From there, I sent a cold email introducing myself and my interest in her research and the course she is teaching.

Prof. Alikhani’s research entails building human-level artificial intelligence to collaborate with humans on a wide range of challenges using a variety of methods and learning techniques. My overall research interest is focused on developing novel computational methods for fair and positive human-AI collaboration in decision making systems which aligns with Prof. Alikhani’s interests. Given our mutual research interests, I have joined her lab to conduct research on fair resource allocation systems.

While working on my CURF project, I have had to embrace the unknown several times as the project we are working on proposes a technique that has not been extensively researched in the past. I have learned the importance of mathematically formalizing problems and being able to communicate my ideas precisely and effectively. I also learned that writing and drawing things is an important and necessary part of executing ideas. Another valuable lesson I have learned is at some point you have to stop brainstorming ideas and commit to one. Once you commit to an idea or decide on which experiment you will try first, you can reevaluate how things are going and how you will proceed.

Other resources I have pursued to help me get where I am today include leveraging the power of Twitter to get involved in the academic community and expand my network. I have also used my personal website as a portfolio/resume to help others learn about my research interests and projects. Fellowships, like the CURF, are also invaluable resources that can help expand your network and help you grow as a researcher.

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