Your First Undergraduate
BY BURT HOLLANDSWORTH
So, you’ve been thinking about undergraduate research in the chemical sciences. Perhaps your program requires you to do a semester (or more) of independent research. Or maybe you have enjoyed chemistry and want to learn more about the discovery process. Perhaps your favorite professor has been hounding you since freshman year to stay at school one summer and do some organic
Whatever the reason, an undergraduate research project is
a good idea. Research can help you process and use what you
learned in your chemistry courses. Plus, the hands-on chemistry
process can be incredibly rewarding; for many chemists, there
is no more fulfilling experience than doing one’s part to design
and implement experiments that answer a scientific question.
But before you begin the project, even before you start looking
for an advisor, there are some important questions you may
want to ask yourself.
What kind of research is best for me?
Research projects tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum
between “basic” and “applied.”
Basic research is designed to answer an interesting question
about nature — for instance, “Is it possible to make a 1,3-sub-
stituted pyrazole starting with hydrazine and a diketone?” The
researchers may not even have an end use for pyrazoles, but they
may still believe that finding a novel way to make pyrazoles contributes to the existing body of knowledge about chemistry.
Applied research, on the other hand, focuses on the development
of a new technology or method to be used for a specific purpose.
Applied research often centers on discovering new scientific
knowledge regarding the appli-
cation of a product, process, or
service. A good example would be,
“Is it possible for us to develop a
method to find peroxide explosives
on clothing at a parts-per-billion
level using mass spectroscopy?”
Applied research projects have
more specific goals than those
involving basic research and lead to
more applications in the real world.
If you want to be able to
explain a tangible application of
research, you should probably
pursue a more applied project. If
you are more interested in learning something new and exciting
for its own sake, either applied
or basic research might work well. Often, professors will have
ideas for projects that span the continuum between applied
and basic research.
In which area should I do research?
There is no chemistry research project that works equally well
for all students. For example, if you hate column chromatography or find carbon-based chemistry dull, then organic synthesis
might not be a good choice. Likewise, if you are exploring the
chemical phenomena associated with a particular instrument
and want to fine-tune its use, you might prefer research involving analytical chemistry.
“ Research during the semester will be a good test of your ability to juggle