Just a Student
I am a physics student who has delved into my first theoretical physics internship. From this transition of student to scientist, I’ve gained some insights that have shifted my view on academia and the world of scientific research. Recently, I’ve learned a lot about what truly makes a scientist, or rather, the difference in attitude from that of a student. As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto, the topics I’ve learned have only been applied in the form of tests and exams. Ultimately, it’s when you leave the lecture halls and enter real research where you can begin to shift your attitude from student to scientist. Consequently, throughout this process and transition I have now become cognizant of the passivity of student culture and its divergence from real research.
Expectations vs. Reality
My research involves investigating and ultimately simulating a specific quantum process called Interatomic Coulomb Electron Capture (ICEC), which to me was an intangible concept at first. That is, until I I was thrown in the deep end, constantly asking “what is my task? what are my duties? what am I actually studying?”. Alas, the second day of work was when I realized that my approach to this internship was completely wrong. I subconsciously put myself in a passive role — a student rather than a scientist. I expected clear tasks to be given to me, like it would be in courses at university. Evidently, this was not the case at all. The answer to all of my questions were, to my surprise, “you choose”.
This was a level of authority I never felt ready to accept. Choosing my own tasks? Figuring out what I am interesting in exploring and researching within ICEC? It was all so foreign to me, but after a brainstorming session on the second day of work, I learned that I was not here to answer questions or to look up answers. I was here to ask them, and to find answers to questions that I found interesting. Thus, finding my own sense of autonomy as a scientist.
The Way Collaboration plays with Autonomy
Taking initiative, exploring topics, asking questions where the answers are yet to be known to anyone. It was a totally different experience than being a student, per se. Although this sense of independence can be enthralling and exciting, one must remember that science is never done alone.
I have a role, but it is not independent from the roles of others in the project. Everyone has their focus, and they are all intricately connected in one way or another. Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve learned that there is a fine balance that must be kept between independence and collaboration. In fact, my best scientific epiphanies happened between simple exchanges of ideas and conversations, which led to great insights for me and my project focus.
In some ways, it can be difficult to try and collaborate on a project with others when you feel like your focuses are so distant. However, the reality of the situation is that collaborating and autonomy in science have a synergetic effect. They work harmoniously to provide a significantly deeper understanding of a topic by looking at it through several angles. Seeing this quantum reaction from the perspective of a chemist, a computer scientist, a mathematician, and a physicist, has only enriched my understand of what this process truly involves.
Although I’ve learned the physics in theory, it wasn’t until I began my internship that I realized the only way to truly learn is to do. Slowly but surely, this is what I’m doing. Perhaps I haven’t found this balance yet, but at least I know that I’m on the right path to figuring it out.
(Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will dive deeper into what my research actually involves!)
Applying book learning to solving real-life problems is always daunting yet exhilarating! I’m starting an internship this semester too, didn’t know what to expect – thank you for sharing your reality.
Internships are such a great opportunity for personal and professional growth 🙂
Very relatable! Can’t wait to see more.
I’m excited to see where this journey leads you!
Great insight, very useful for students at any level! The key take away is to shift your perspective from passive to active- it will all make more sense! Best of luck Nikki on your path to learning!
thanks Ladan! I hope I go back to the school year with a better sense of self learning 🙂
Thank you for your inspirational blogpost! I like the way you very openly communicate your thoughts and put in your words that “even learning must be learned” in the beginning of most scientific research.
I am eagerly awaiting the continuation of your story at HZB.
It is very nice that your blog is providing information regarding the program. I want to aware you towards the “HP Intern Jobs in the United States”, that is available for the students to get success in their career.
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Very insightful observations and reflections!
I can’t agree more with Nikki that one learns best by doing. There is little value in merely “knowing something”. The value of education becomes more significant in “using what you have learned”, and this should be the focus of education systems.
As someone put it nicely, in a direct- instruction- only teaching model: “The difference between A students and F students is the A students forget it five minutes after the test; the F students, five minutes before.”
I also think it is impossible to apply the knowledge before gaining that knowledge. However, inquiry and solving open-ended problems should be introduced at an earlier stage and the real job of the educator is creating the need to learn. Some schools already have adopted Problem Based Learning (PBL) model to cultivate this atmosphere right from secondary school level.
Nikki, perfectly understand you!
I believe that when every physics beginner feels that difference, the education will be much more interesting and productive. The education system should be changed from this side, and may be it will be our responsibility as future scientists and teachers.
Well written and very well observed!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Nikki. As seen in the comments below, your post opens up a discussion about education, too.
As you said, as a student you apply what you have learned only in the form of exams. The questions in those exams are given and kind of only what you have learned is the real answer to those questions. As a scientist on the other hand you can ask your own questions and your job is to seek for answers, they are not given as in school.
However, the best way to learn is to ask questions and seek for solutions. Unfortunately, mostly a student has to learn things by heart, then will enter the exam and after that forget the most of the learned “facts”. It is kind of a waste of time. On the one hand, it indeed is important to learn the basics (by heart) to be able to ask further questions and find answers but on the other hand we should learn and experience the way to ask questions ourselves, too.
And this is where projects like this at the HZB are helpful. Next to studying you gather experience in research, gain new skills and have the possibility to have direct conversations with researchers. And yes, as you said “the only way to truly learn is to do”.
Additionally and lastly, I want to say that it also depends on your teacher. Some of them encourage you to ask questions but there are also the ones wanting you just to memorize facts.
Hi Fatma, thanks for your comment! I’m now realizing how fruitful what I learned in university is now that I’m putting it into the context of real science. It’s a learning process still, but I’m glad to be here, and I hope all research allows us to grow as scientists and inquirers!
Great observation of the gap between being a student and being in the industry! It’s great that you are transitioning well, can’t wait to read your next post!
This is very introspective and well written. Looking forward to the next post!
As a professor at University, I find these feedbacks especially from bachelor students quite useful. Hardest part of a lecturer’s job is to bridge course material to its applications in industry and science. During a course, we cannot give autonomy to an average student because they most probably fail the course due to lack of instructions, however, too much instructions could be disappointing for students like this one (Nikki). As academics, the ultimate reward is to elevate the best students to reach their highest potential and become the best researchers and scientists and to make sure they could eventually push the limits. I really enjoyed reading the above text because I totally agree with her and I believe the takeaway message from her internship is genuine. I think there must be more fundings to encourage young researchers in bachelor level to contribute in scientific projects.
New post is up!
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