Robert Hsu | Daring to take a taste


The Casual Observer | Research is a collaborative and creative activity


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Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Photo by Robert Hsu


How do you know you won’t like it until you try it?

That’s something I heard a lot growing up, usually whenever I didn’t want to try a new dish. But last summer, this phrase came to mind when I was getting my first taste of research through Penn’s Summer Undergraduate Minority Research Program.

Before SUMR, I was mildly interested in research. I was passionate about public health, especially obesity prevention and nutrition, but knew little about the science behind it.

Research reawakened the 3 year old in me — the kid that constantly asked why. Except now it asks: Do nutritional facts posted in restaurants actually work? Would new grocery stores actually make the surrounding community healthier? Why was this method chosen over another? These are questions that only research can validate.

I fell in love with the constant cycle of learning, challenging existing thought, solving problems and questioning. Since then, I’ve felt that research is something that everyone must taste.

Many students are reluctant to give research a go because they view it as a boring or isolating activity.

But, in reality, research is an extremely collaborative process — one that epitomizes creativity in an academic field.

For my former biology professor, Philip Rea, research “brings with it the delight in not knowing exactly what each day will bring, and the thrill of finding out stuff about stuff and sharing it with others.”

He wrote this to me in an email, adding, “we as research scientists thrive on the sharing of results with our colleagues, chats (sometimes heated!) about the last paper we read, and the occasional sortie into a friend’s lab to learn a new technique on a ‘need to know’ basis.”

This alluring image, however, might not be enough to convince students who are turned off by seemingly menial tasks that they are assigned as research assistants. But research is like any other school subject, extracurricular or career — one must develop skills and invest time before he or she is given more responsibilities. Students often fail to understand that tasks like data entry and participant recruitment are crucial to the success of a project and provide them with vital, transferable skills.

Others may fail to see how research connects with reality. But as Joanne Levy, the director of the SUMR program sees it, “everything is driven by research.” She used mammograms as an example to explain how science has a practical purpose. “Research tells us how often it should be done, when it should be done and whether the test is reliable,” she said.

Like engineering and consulting, research requires problem-solving skills. But it’s unique in its ability to fuel knowledge and progress by providing new answers.

Sometimes getting involved in research relies on a little bit on luck. College junior Nikolai Zapertov, a member of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships’ advisory board, for example, became fortuitously involved with research through a work-study job after his freshman year. Zapertov — who was planning to major in political science — found a job in an aquatic sciences and fisheries lab. “This is when I decided to give biology a try,” he said. “I ended up loving the lab work and fieldwork, and I finally felt like I was applying what I learned from science class.”

Rea, on the other hand, was told he had a knack for research at a young age. “I guess there were two factors that prompted me to pursue a career in research,” he said. “The first was a research project I did for my high school biology ‘A’ level on ‘Visual acuity in the smooth newt (Triticus vulgaris).’ This, a project I came up with of my own accord, was received with great enthusiasm and considered by the examiners to be of ‘remarkable originality’ — much to my surprise.”

College is the last time most of us will have the opportunity to take risks in an environment filled with resources. So take a stab at research. Even if you hate it, you’ll learn valuable skills — like working on a diverse team and formulating sound hypotheses — that can be easily transferred to your future career.

Think of it like trying an exotic dish: even if you don’t like the way it tastes, you can at least say you tried it. But if you discover that you love it, you won’t be able to get enough.

Robert Hsu, a College and Wharton sophomore from Novi, Mich. His email address is rohsu@sas.upenn.edu. Follow him @mrroberthsu. “The Casual Observer” appears every other Friday.

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