As an undergraduate student, no one really tells you how to transition from “ambitious, yet confused” to “feeling accomplished, but still slightly confused”. You want to feel prepared for the next step, whether that’s graduate school or your first “real job”, but there’s still that undeniable grey area in between that must be navigated. Speaking from personal experience, I can say with confidence that the most important step in this transition is to define your comfort zone, and then take one step outside of that. It was in this zone of slightly-uncomfortable that I made connections, explored my interests, and gained valuable skills that helped me come out of my undergraduate degree feeling like I had gained more than just a fancy piece of paper.
I consider obtaining a NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award for the Spring term of my 3rd year the major turning point of my career as an undergraduate student. I knew research was an interest of mine, but was unsure how to explore it at the undergraduate level. I had been a research assistant for 1 year, but was craving more - what happened with all of the data once all was said and done? The process behind receiving this award involved going to Meet the Profs lunches, emailing TAs for classes that I was enjoying, and preparing for interviews with potential award supervisors. But the hardest part, and I can only speak from personal experience, was narrowing down my interests into specific ideas. Truth be told, obtaining the award took two attempts. I applied at the end of my second year, and again at the end of my third year. Between those two time points, I took the time to try and narrow my interests, as well as take a computer science course (CS115). At the time, I wasn’t able to comprehend the importance of this course. Being a BSc in Psychology (Minor in Biology) student, this course was at least one giant step outside of comfortable. To be honest, I struggled through it. After the final exam, all I could think of was “Phew, I’m so glad that’s over”. Little did I know that the skills I had been obtaining in that class were going to help me achieve more than I thought I could as an undergraduate student.
Receiving the award meant that I was granted the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with a professor of cognitive neuroscience and design, as well as conduct, a research project. I quickly learned that the “conduct a research project” part is by far the easiest. The “design a research project”…not so much. The most challenging part by far was the behind-the-scenes developing that involved learning Python. Being a programming novice meant this was going to take me longer than I cared to admit. Long story (and I mean really long story) short, programming and I eventually settled into a place where I felt it was a helpful skill and not just a necessary burden. After months of research and sifting through error and warning messages, the final research project was a go! It resulted from a collaborative effort between Dr. Britt Anderson, Dr. James Danckert, as well as a second USRA recipient, and involved using inhibitory transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to investigate the involvement of the frontal cortex in probabilistic learning.
After we finished collecting participants, I was finally going to experience the part I had been most excited for: data analysis. Seeing as I had already gone through the process of teaching myself Python, I figured I might as well learn another language. Learning R as a statistical tool was, and is, a skill that I consider very valuable. Throughout the USRA, my honours thesis project, and again this summer term as a data analyst for Dr. Anderson and Dr. Danckert, I continue to discover new and efficient means of finding the stories that the data is trying to tell. I feel that I’ve only began to graze the surface of the R knowledge that is available to me, and I look forward to expanding this skill throughout graduate school.
Being involved in the Anderson Lab, obtaining a USRA, and conducting my honours thesis project with Dr. Anderson and Dr. Danckert has allowed me to become not only a competitive graduate school applicant, but a more well-rounded, and inquisitive student. I will be continuing my studies as a Masters student in the Advanced Cognitive Engineering Lab at Carleton University this September, where I will be conducting research on the cognitive and behavioural aspects of virtual and augmented reality technology. In the moment, most of these processes have felt like a struggle. But the important part is that we can look back and reflect upon those struggles, and see them as learning opportunities. The grey zone is a scary one, but with the right mindset and the will to be a little uncomfortable, the journey becomes that much more rewarding.