Want to Conduct Research AND Travel?! Read about Adam Perez and Grant Varnau’s Summer at Vanderbilt University

When you’re an undergraduate involved in research and you’re grad school bound, it can feel overwhelming to complete all the things that you want to in four (…or five) short years. How does one find time to stay dedicated to research, travel, network, and prepare for graduate school? ISMD Scholar Adam Perez and MARC Scholar Grant Varnau found a way to do it all by applying to a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee for the summer of 2016.


In an interview with IMSD Program Manager, Brittnie Bloom, Adam and Grant talk about their experiences of applying for a REU, their summer away from San Diego at Vanderbilt University, and their future plans.

Q: Why did you apply for a REU and what was the process like? 
Both Adam and Grant applied for a REU because they knew it would be a “great opportunity to expose [themselves] to different research areas [they] may want to pursue for future projects […] and enrich [their] graduate school applications, making [them] more attractive applicant[s].” Grant had previous contact with Vanderbilt University, as he had applied to the Pre-VU EDGE Program, where he was flown out to Nashville, all costs paid for, to learn about their graduate programs and departments.

Grant discussed that applying for a REU is good practice for applying to Ph.D. Programs, as the structure is similar: “All the applications were similar, requiring transcripts, a personal statement, 2-3 letters of recommendation, and occasionally a supplemental application [the university] provided. I highly recommend other students apply to these programs; but they are competitive.” As additive information, the NIH requires that MARC scholars participate in external research experiences; this is not a requirement for the IMSD Program, but IMSD students are strongly encouraged to apply to a REU if possible. Many of these opportunities only have 10-15 spots available and each university receives upwards of 300 applications. These stats are not unlike those of grad school admissions.

Q: What did you learn this summer?
Adam and Grant had lots to talk about when asked what they learned over the summer. Most notably, both discussed how exciting it was to be exposed to different research in their field, which would ultimately complement and add to the research they conduct at SDSU in their individual labs.

As NIH-funded scholars, both Adam and Grant are required to present their research at national conferences, such as SACNAS and ABRCMS.* Learning how to communicate a research project to individuals with various backgrounds and knowledge levels is an important skill to develop. Adam specifically talked about how participating in a REU helped build these skills: “I learned a lot about how to communicate to an audience with varying backgrounds in the field of science. I had to adapt the way I speak about my work very frequently which increased my confidence in the work I was doing.” Adam spent many hours in the lab, developing new organizational and analytical skills: “I also learned how to approach a task in order to get results, which required a organized planning of work and what to finish the day after.”

Q: What are some takeaways from your time outside of California, working with faculty outside of SDSU, and non-SDSU students?
Each scholar hit different points when asked this question. Adam discussed some difficulties he experienced in adapting – the difference from the dry weather of Southern California to the humid weather of Nashville, as well as the differences in culture and diversity from SoCal to the South. He said it took some time, but he now feels he could live anywhere! Grant touched upon the differences on campuses and in research concentrations each university will offer: “Every school has a different feel on campus […being there in real life] is so much different than reading about it online or in a brochure.”

As far as networking and community building, Adam felt he gained many great contacts and exposure through the REU at Vanderbilt University: “Every conference is another opportunity to network” with recruiters, faculty, graduate students, and other undergrads. There’s so much work to collaborate on!

Q; How will your time at Vanderbilt University influence or affect the research you conduct at SDSU and in your future?
Both scholars had great answers to this question, ranging from their renewed passion for their field to their desire to impart and share their new knowledge with their lab mates. Both felt that their experience during the summer of 2016 will assist them in their graduate applications to Ph.D. Programs in the near future.

Adam (pictured below): “Not only am I charged with a greater passion to continue the research I have been doing, but I also have the chance to collaborate with other researchers who were researching similar projects to my own. Therefore, I reached out to other researchers at my school to work in their labs too.”
Adam Perez, presenting research at Vanderbilt U

Grant (pictured below): “What I did at Vanderbilt taught me to be a better researcher overall, and that will go back with me to SDSU to be an even better student in Dr. Tong’s Lab. I learned even more about spectroscopy, non-linear optics, and laser physics which will be invaluable to my research in laser spectroscopy and help other students in my lab. ”
Grant Varnau, presenting research at Vanderbilt University summer 2016

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Adam Perez, SDSU IMSD Scholar is a junior studying Chemistry and working in Dr. Chris Harrison’s lab.
Grant Varnau, SDSU MARC Scholar, is a graduating senior studying Physics and working in Dr. William Tong’s lab. He will be applying to Ph.D. Programs in the fall of 2016.
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*check out these national conference’s respective websites (SACNAS.org / www.abrcms.org) to learn about how you can apply to present research and obtain travel scholarships.
If you are interested in applying to a NSF REU Program for the summer of 2017, get started by checking out their website at https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.jsp.