The Beaker Blues

LBNL Nanocrystal Research Laboratory
Simone Anne Lang/Staff

 

Here’s a question: What’s a problem a theoretical neuroscientist, a biochemist and a zoologist can’t solve?

 

The answer is how to combat barriers in their very own labs.

If you haven’t heard by now, UC Berkeley is the best public university in the world — and not only that, but a top research university as well. A quick scan of UC Berkeley’s promotional materials will give you an idea of the way this campus feels about its research; the home page states that “Berkeley is well known for its dynamic research environment,” wherewe address the biggest challenges of the day to create a better world.” So, if you’re a UC Berkeley student involved in research or not, chances are the concept is already in the back of your mind.

Research is a rite of passage in some circles, mentioned casually alongside stories of dinners with professors and invitations to lab meetings. It is one of the buzzwords of intellectual advancement that hunch shoulders over online applications and pit student against fellow student; often associated with other UC Berkeley jargon, it falls somewhere between “internship” and “UGSI.” Freshmen and sophomores, whether focused or directionless, are advised by faculty and students alike to apply widely and immediately to get their foot in the door. But whether undergraduates across the board have a glamorous, formative experience — and whether equal access to these opportunities is really provided — remains to be seen.

Bernal Jimenez, like many UC Berkeley students, came in excited to study science, and not necessarily to do research. As a physics major, however, he started to notice that a lot of people in his classes seemed to be working in research labs.

“I remember feeling some pressure to go into research because it’s almost expected for people here,” Jimenez said.

This message wasn’t only coming from Jimenez’s peers. Professors also applied well-intentioned pressure, emphasizing the importance of research positions — especially for those pursuing graduate school.

Research is a rite of passage in some circles, mentioned casually alongside stories of dinners with professors and invitations to lab meetings. It is one of the buzzwords of intellectual advancement that hunch shoulders over online applications and pit student against fellow student; often associated with other UC Berkeley jargon, it falls somewhere between “internship” and “UGSI.”

“I had the feeling that if you didn’t get research experience, then grad school would be very difficult, and even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to do grad school, (not doing research) would close doors,” Jimenez said.

Like many young people at UC Berkeley — bright and overwhelmed — Jimenez wanted to keep his options open. But as many frazzled students have found, just finding position for which to apply can be a test of navigation. Research at UC Berkeley is housed not only in academic departments, but through Organized Research Units, or ORUs, museums and field stations. Undergraduates can find opportunities through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships, or OURS, the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, or URAP, and independent study courses, which are often listed as 199s.

When he first delved into research at UC Berkeley, Jimenez found a position in a cognitive science laboratory; however, it wasn’t quite the experience he was hoping for. It didn’t help that, like most undergraduate research opportunities at UC Berkeley, it was unpaid.

“It’s a very common practice to give undergraduates positions where they aren’t doing much of the creative process, but they’re also not getting paid,”  Jimenez said. “They’re expected to do things for free because of the experience of doing research. And if you’re really into the research, then that works out —but if you’re not, you’re like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ ”

Soon after he started, Jimenez left his position, but he knew he still wanted to be involved in research. When he heard from a friend that a physics lab he was interested in was looking for undergrads, he jumped at the chance, bypassing the hoops of online web applications by emailing the grad student directly. He started work that summer.

Although he didn’t know much about the field — theoretical neuroscience — Jimenez felt it was a good combination of his interests in neuroscience, cognitive science and math. Despite his lack of experience, he assumed he would be able to catch on quickly and keep up. But it was a steeper learning curve than he’d thought.

“It took me, like, a year to begin to understand and feel like I was actually contributing something to the work,” Jimenez said.

Not all students who commit to research may fully understand what they’re signing up for. Jimenez suggested that unrealistic expectations may be a product of the type of people that come to this university — successful, smart students who assume things will come easily to them.

“I think I expected to go in and be able to pick up on things a lot faster than I was able to,” Jimenez said. “Research is difficult and there’s a lot of trial and error”.

Jimenez spent his whole first summer just working on mini coding projects that introduced him and the other interns to the basic ideas of the field.

“I didn’t have enough background at the time to really understand what I was doing mathematically,” Jimenez said.

He was lucky in that he had a grad student that was committed to introducing him to the material; they met nearly every week to talk about code-writing techniques and analysis. Like many students, he thought he would be able to continue doing research effectively when the semester began, but balancing his course load with his research proved harder than he’d thought. What’s more, this time commitment may not always be spent the way students expect. In her research, UC Berkeley sophomore Kelly Wong spends hours transcribing student interviews, and junior Alexander Ehrenberg, as an intern at UCSF, started out by just practicing algorithms and functions on Excel datasets.

 

As of a 2016 report, UC Berkeley has an undergraduate population of 27,496 students. About half of students participated in research by the time they graduated, according to data collected in 2006. Additionally, in 2014, 70 percent of students reported having enrolled in at least one student research course, a class that requires some element of independent research as part of the curriculum.

For all this participation, the fact remains that the potential for comparison and self-doubt can be disheartening.

“It’s assumed that getting a research position is really hard as an undergrad, so I think it’s almost become a contest among students of who’s ‘more qualified’ to work on a project,” Wong said.

Despite this, if done right, research can offer students unique opportunities to learn actively, collaborate with faculty and “integrate…more fully into the dynamic and diverse research life of UC Berkeley,” as advertised by the research homepage. The benefits of research are also experienced by the university itself: They manifest in increased student appeal, media attention and the attraction of high-profile faculty. But it can also mean huge lower-division courses and discussion sections led by graduate students.

Wong suggested that the reason for UC Berkeley’s title of “number one public university” may not be undergraduate education itself, but the research conducted by faculty. Unfortunately, the benefits of this research may not always be reaped by the students sitting in the lecture halls.

“It seems to me that a lot of professors are really just at Cal to conduct their research, and teaching every once in awhile is just a side project that they’re required to complete,” Wong said. “I really do think that the research being conducted at this school is significant. It’s just that sometimes I wonder whether this university is meant to benefit the students or mostly just the faculty.”

At UC Berkeley, we are certainly presented — if not affronted — with the collision of a research institution with an undergraduate education. According to Elizabeth Berkes, a research associate at the campus’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, “research universities must justify their participation in the business of undergraduate education when their primary energies are dedicated to the research endeavor.”  Yet a precedent has been set to provide students with research opportunities as undergraduates; in fact, some think that research is so important that we should do away with lectures entirely and focus exclusively on it. Students involved in research may also feel more connected and engaged with the work being done by the university as a whole. While massive intro classes can be difficult to wade through, the opportunities provided by research laboratories and connections with faculty may provide relief, if a student is able to find them.

At its best, research pushes boundaries, challenges status quos and demands constant affirmation of old theories; at its worst, it reinforces the kind of birthright intellectual elitism and lack of mobility that keeps 62 percent of the faculty at UC Berkeley male and 79 percent of them white.

So is it not the university’s responsibility to ensure the doors to this academic wonderland are open to all? To a large extent, studies about undergraduate research showed similar involvement across ethnic and gender groups. In a UC Berkeley-specific study, women actually accounted for 13 percent more of the total number of undergraduates doing research, and, at least in overview, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups were shown to participate at approximately the same rate as groups with greater representation. In light of the lofty goals of a research institution, UC Berkeley seems to be doing well. Upon closer inspection, however, the web of knowledge at UC Berkeley has its limitations. It is not hard to imagine research being subject to the difficulties faced by academia as a whole, as well as the glass ceilings and population pressures suffered by an enormous public university.

At its best, research pushes boundaries, challenges status quos and demands constant affirmation of old theories; at its worst, it reinforces the kind of birthright intellectual elitism and lack of mobility that keeps 62 percent of the faculty at UC Berkeley male and 79 percent of them white. Research can be an encouragement to ask questions, however it can devolve into an empty buzzword, tossed around in shallow attempts of  resume-building and as a way to attract high-achieving students to universities scrutinized in the public eye.

Upon further analysis, the facts show that there do exist threats to the “equal involvement” touted by earlier statistics; for example, by 2006 data, a higher percentage of STEM majors (54.3 percent) than non-STEM majors (44.9 percent) are engaged in research opportunities.  This may be a result of assumptions that are made about their less prestigious nature as compared to coveted positions in STEM fields; additionally, students may just not know they exist.

“(My friends) immediately lose interest when I tell them that my research isn’t in the traditional lab setting,” said Wong, who, although a biochemistry major, studies how lower-division students at Cal construct identities as (in)competent chemistry students from a more social science perspective. “I feel that a lot of this kind of research is disregarded because it’s not seen as ‘real science’ even though it’s very relevant,” Wong said. “I get a lot of people asking me why I’m doing research about education and not quantitative research in a chemistry lab. I feel like it’s part of this whole ‘STEM versus humanities’ debate where some people don’t think that research in the humanities is as impressive, important or valid as research in STEM fields.”

What’s more, despite numerically greater opportunities, research in STEM fields seems to be where the barriers to undergraduate researchers are most evident. In keeping with the societal trend regarding gender discrepancies in STEM fields, less than 20 percent of all women in STEM fields participated in undergraduate research opportunities, while 30 percent of men in these fields did. This difference is lost in overall accounting of research participation — and unacknowledged by the initial assumption that STEM majors are better off for research opportunities — seeing as the trend was reversed in non-STEM majors, where 30 percent of women participated as compared to only 21 percent of men.

Gender-based inequality in STEM fields is evidenced by the numbers, but the obstacles to women may extend beyond purely securing a position. When researchers at the University of Arizona had male and female scientists wear audio recorders and go about their work, they found that male scientists became more excited when they spoke to other scientists about their research. But the more women talked to male peers about their research, the more disengaged the women reported feeling. Unfortunately, STEM research — an endeavor of penetrating minds and trailblazers — may continue to reek of patriarchy.

 

Beyond issues of gender at UC Berkeley, STEM fields at UC Berkeley also showed comparatively low participation of Latino students and black students as compared with other ethnic groups (they account for 13 percent and 7 percent of STEM researchers, respectively). When considered alongside the already low enrollment of black students on campus (last reported at 4 percent), this means the likelihood of diversity in a research setting, as well as the likelihood of relatable role models for undergraduates in this field, is far lower than it should be. Jimenez, who is Latino, experienced this lack of diversity firsthand.

“I started thinking more about the fact that there’s no Latinos in my lab. That’s something that I had noticed before, but never really stopped to think what effect that has on how I feel in the lab,” Jimenez said. But for young people seeking their career paths, the availability of mentor figures is especially important.

“I think it would be really beneficial for me to have had some Latino role models, especially because, you know, I could relate more, in a cultural sphere, to them,” Jimenez said.

Race and gender are not the only barriers to equal opportunity in research. Despite considerable campus efforts to reach out to first-generation college students, overall, significantly more UC Berkeley STEM researchers report that their fathers hold a master’s, professional or doctoral degree than nonresearching students in the same field  — while in non-STEM fields, no such trend is observed. Furthermore, the worry of reinforcing a pre-existing intellectual order founded unequal resource allocation becomes prevalent when it is seen that STEM students with high high school GPA and SAT I scores appear more likely to participate in STEM research — while, once again, there is no relationship between high school GPA or SAT I score and non-STEM undergraduate research participation.

Those who learned to “work the system” at a young age, likely with considerable support and ample resources, continue to have an advantage when it comes to applying for research positions in STEM fields. Why? Perhaps the fact that our largely secular society has turned to worship of a different god — technology, experimental data and science — means that opportunities in these fields continue to be most available to the upper echelon of society. Even the fact that research, a significant time commitment, is largely unpaid means it is most available to students who can afford to lose out on those hours they would be able to work for pay. This can be prohibitive for students with less disposable income, for whom, even in light of the undoubtable benefits of research, it can be hard to justify.

In STEM fields, issues of equality may fall by the wayside when the horizon holds the promised cash and fame of the next groundbreaking discovery — see the extreme gentrification of the Bay Area in the startup explosion. What’s more, the high-pressure environment of high-powered research centers, with large budgets and media eyes trained on their laboratories, can make it difficult to get your foot in the door (even if the room is filled with people who look like you). While there is a tradition of lauding students that appear self-motivated and prepared, a university that is failing to extend its research opportunities to those who do not come in as able to navigate the system — whether empowered by their SAT scores or pushed by their high-achieving parents — is not doing its job. If there is a noticeable discrepancy in participation of nonwhite males in STEM research, the university has not done enough to acknowledge or address it.

If these obstacles can be noted and removed, there is no doubt that the concept of research carries powerful connotations of progressiveness for the university and the world. There is a hunger inherent in the act of research, a yearning for new knowledge, new methodologies and the constant overturning of outdated realities that set it apart from the many fields that cling to repetition of what has worked before. Undergraduates, who at this point don’t even remember the days before genetic sequencing, online archives and quantum physics, can play a powerful role in this process as vectors of a fresh perspective. As science writer Sharon Begley told NPR in 2007, “science revolutions happen when old scientists die;” whether STEM or not, young people’s ideas are fuel for the revolution. Through opportunities for collaboration and active learning, students are being offered something that standardized education cannot provide. If able to break beyond the overpopulated, time-crunched realities of classes at a public university, they are given the opportunity for exploration, for creative problem-solving, for testing theories and making mistakes. The university, buffered by their questioning (and powered by their toiling hands) can do its best to stimulate this curiosity.

“You are collaborating with (faculty and grad students), but most of the time you just have to assume that role of ‘I am a student in research,’ ” Jimenez said. “It’s not that I am actually doing the research. It’s that I am learning how this whole system of research production works.”

If UC Berkeley can commit to providing knowledge and training to curious students and to being constantly receptive to critiques on how old ways can be done better, and if students can commit to their fascination, there lies the best of academic past and future.

But there needs to be equal access. Greater outreach should be undertaken to encourage women, underrepresented minority groups and those from nonacademic backgrounds to participate in STEM research. Students should also be aware that research, by whatever definition, is complicated and rarely easy, and they should be realistic about their expectations; while the excitement is in the ideas, it may also be necessary to devote significant time and effort to understanding the dynamics of the system.

“You are collaborating with (faculty and grad students), but most of the time you just have to assume that role of ‘I am a student in research,’ ” Jimenez said. “It’s not that I am actually doing the research. It’s that I am learning how this whole system of research production works.”

Students with ears buzzing from the glow of promotional materials and the jealousy of well-established classmates must understand the nuance that lies beyond research’s resume glamor. While in many cases a worthwhile endeavor, finding a way into research at UC Berkeley — with a position, dedicated mentors and a workable subject matter — requires work, and the road is not equally paved for all walks of life.

Contact Nina Djukic at [email protected]