star material being devoured by a supermassive black hole

Undergraduate Research: What to Expect

When I first got back home for the summer, I was really, really bored. I had a fantastic freshman year—I took super interesting courses, joined several cool RSOs, and met tons of great people. Flying back to my quiet home in Hong Kong with almost nothing to do was unsettling, and I really missed the constant hustle of college life.

Luckily, I had the fortune of landing myself a summer research internship at a local university. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, so this opportunity was perfect for me to experience what it really means to be one. Plus, it stopped me from being bored out of my mind and gave me something to do.

I ended up learning a lot from my research experience, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s thinking about going into a career in science. If you’re thinking about getting involved in research (at Illinois or any other university), great! It’s a fun time, and it helps you develop all sorts of useful skills. Here are a couple of things that I learned and picked up over the summer:

1. The start is going to be rough.

The laboratory I interned at did research related to gravitational waves, a relatively new branch of astronomy. Because of this, there was little background information that I, a rising sophomore, could easily digest. I ran into wacky terms like “post-Newtonian mechanics” and “quasi-circular orbits,” and really struggled to get up to speed with the experienced researchers in my group.

Thankfully, my supervisor was extremely supportive and patient and walked me through the topics I needed to know in a way I could understand. Learning the basics of the research field was a long (and sometimes painful) process, but I got there in the end!

Be prepared to do a lot of reading! CBIT, 2019.

2. Research is super specific.

The full title of my research project was “Distinguishing gravitational-wave waveforms under the consideration of orbit eccentricity and precession from lensed waveforms.” To put that in English, I was looking at two seemingly-insignificant traits of black holes.

I originally thought that doing research meant making huge jumps into the unknown. The reality is that researchers take baby steps and build slowly on what they already know. Nonetheless, every single little step is extremely important. If you ever find yourself doing research, don’t worry if you think what you’re doing is insignificant! Every little thing you discover will play a vital role in the grand scheme of your research field.

3. It might not be as practical as you expect.

The research field that I was in was very theoretical, so I spent most of my work days sitting in front of a laptop reading papers, programming, or writing lab reports. I was happy to do this, but that’s because I was working with data that I’m really interested in.

Research isn’t always doing super cool, practical experiments—a lot of it is boring write-ups and administrative work. The amount of practical stuff that you do will vary from subject to subject, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared to do a lot of writing!

I loved the research that I did this summer, and probably will continue to do something related to this field (in fact, I’m still working with people in Hong Kong here at Illinois—we’re trying to publish a paper sometime this fall). I picked up a ton of new skills, met a lot of talented and brilliant people, and have something nice to put on my résumé. If you’re thinking of doing a research internship when you’re a student here at Illinois, I highly recommend it! Don’t be scared to reach out to professors to see if they’re willing to host you—the worst thing they can say is no.



Class of 2022
I grew up in Hong Kong, China, and I’ve come across the world to Illinois to major in Astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I’ve always thought outer space is super cool, and I love that I’m learning everything that I can about it at Illinois.


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