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The Benefits of Undergraduate Research

Each year the number of undergraduates applying to graduate schools increases almost exponentially; thus creating a great pool of applicants. No longer are good grades sufficient. Extracurricular activities are nice, but do they demonstrate to the admissions committee that the applicant is competent in a laboratory setting? Realizing the lack of research experience of undergraduates enrolling in science graduate programs, several universities and national laboratories nationwide are now offering numerous prestigious paid internships for undergraduate research. These internships offer an opportunity to gain valuable research experience and meet other students with similar backgrounds. Additionally, research increases one's mental acuity and problem-solving capabilities. I have participated in several research projects and internships, including the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Research Undergraduate Laboratories Fellowship (ERULF) program last summer.

Discovery and Research Interests

Nuclear chemistry has fascinated me since high school AP chemistry. Moreover, the fact that tiny atoms could produce huge explosions and also function in pacemakers and smoke detectors was extremely fascinating to me. Just for the record, before I "discovered" nuclear chemistry, I wanted to be the world's first neurosurgeon and meteorologist on the Weather Channel!! Although chemistry now fills my mind, I still harbor huge interests in neuroscience and meteorology.

In an attempt to strengthen my nuclear chemistry background, I conducted an individual research project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) as a fellow in the ERULF program. My research advisor was Dr. Heino Nitsche, director of the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute and a long-time colleague of Dr. Gregory R. Choppin, chair of my honors thesis committee. In order to prepare for the internship, I read several textbooks focusing on aqueous and surface chemistry. By the first day of the internship, I was ready to commence with my project, which was formally entitled "Studies of the Sorption Properties of Titanium, Aluminum, and Uranium(VI) Oxides by Potentiometric Titrations."

Diversity Matters

The ethnic makeup not only at LBNL, but also at the university and city of Berkeley, was phenomenal. An exceptionally high percentage of the population is Asian, with a smaller percentage of Hispanics and a seemingly negligible population of African Americans. Naturally, some interesting conversations evolved between myself and Asians or Caucasians. For example, one Asian American related to me the statistics of African Americans who attended the University of California (UC), Berkeley. He noted the high percentage of African Americans in the natural sciences that drop out after one semester or even a year of study. He was truly concerned about these disheartening statistics. Furthermore, he told me that most African American students were pursing degrees in engineering, not the physical sciences.

I also talked with two other Asian UC Berkeley students conducting independent research at the laboratory. One afternoon we took our usual lunch break, and out of curiosity I wanted to know what their first impressions were when they realized I would be working alongside them. So I asked them. Among their responses, the most notable one was "Wow, she's black!!" I was in no way offended, just astounded. In some ways it actually felt neat to be a minority in a very small field (nuclear chemistry and physics) dominated by male Caucasians. I realized that if these students were surprised that I was doing real research in such a field, countless others may feel the same way about underrepresented minorities around the country.

I spent the entire summer discussing (and dismissing) the numerous stereotypes about African Americans and sharing cultural tidbits with my lab mates. I savored Indian cuisine and even learned about Asian prejudices that are present in first-generation Asian parents. This, I realized, is what makes America the melting pot. It's not just having different cultures in a localized area. It's the interactions and networking between the cultures that makes it a true melting pot.

Future Plans

At the end of my internship, I submitted a paper for review by the U.S. Department of Energy's Journal of Undergraduate Research and the Journal of Young Investigators. Not only had I expanded my chemistry knowledge, but I had also made several new friends and learned about other cultures. These are the treasures undergraduates can uncover when doing summer internships in laboratories. The internships also come with generous stipends, housing, and travel allowances. And in addition to the prestige associated with work at a national or university laboratory, one also gains access to cutting-edge facilities and the opportunity to collaborate with researchers at the forefront of their respective fields. In fact, some of these researchers--in particular, your supervising researcher--can write strong letters of recommendation to elite graduate and medical schools or help you secure more fellowships.

During the summer of 2003, I will be conducting research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. After I complete the summer research rotation, I will join UC Berkeley to pursue a doctoral degree in nuclear chemistry.

Ms. Christina Leggett is currently an undergraduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University. Send Christina e-mail at

For more information about the 2003 Summer Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (formerly ERULF), visit the program's Web site.

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