My Crazy Summer Research Life: Was it worth it?

A version of this post appeared in 2016, but – for better or worse – the message is still true. Summer research yields incredible student outcomes that are forged through investment of faculty time and effort. Sounds like teaching, doesn’t it?


I’m looking back over this summer and wondering – what did I accomplish? And do I dare ask myself…was it worth it? I titled this blog “My Crazy Summer Research Life” – and I think the word that most characterizes me, and this post, is “crazy”. Let me explain.

I have spent most of the last 10 weeks here. In my office. In my lab. With my students. Officially – I am not employed by the college right now. So…I’m working for free.

We are faculty engaged in undergraduate research. Let’s face it. This is a labor of love. I have spent most of the last 10 weeks here. In my office. In my lab. With my students. Officially – I am not employed by the college right now. So…I’m working for free.

Ouch.

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Vera and I at the centrifuge

It’s not that I don’t value research with students. I really do. But I guess, I wish more people understood the cost. Sure, there is the option of external funding, but we know the statistics…at any given moment most of us are not externally funded. You might have a small internal grant from the college – I’ve had these before, and the funds don’t even cover the cost of my childcare for the summer. So, looking at it another way…I am paying for the privilege of doing research with my students.

Wow. I am crazy.

Sure – the summer is a slower pace. There isn’t any grading, no faculty meetings, no classes to prep or teach. I travel to conferences, leave a little earlier. But, the bottom line is…

“No, I don’t have my summers off.”

My students can’t do chemistry by themselves. They aren’t sitting in a library reading primary sources. They are handling toxic chemicals, working under high pressures, operating instrumentation that costs thousands (if not, hundreds of thousands) of dollars. They are learning and mastering technical skills that require carefully supervised practice. And so, we are elbow to elbow. At the bench.

Doing research for the summer has more than one goal – but in the end, I do this because I want to do research with students.

Doing research for the summer has more than one goal – but in the end, I do this because I want to do research with students. Sure, summer research allows me to make progress on my work, without the interruptions of the semester. But of course – if I were prioritizing progress, I would not take students. Let’s face it – students slow you down! If progress was the priority, then I should go to an R1 lab for the summer and crank out a paper.

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Kelly and I getting ready to purify protein

Nah – summer research has always been about the students. It’s FUN showing them how to make discoveries on their own, to try answering a question that no one has ever answered before. Watching them make that transition from student to student researcher – that is cool. Very cool.

So – if my administrators ever read this (wouldn’t that be something), I want them to know that summer research is so incredibly valuable. But, it isn’t free. All that growth that happens in those students – those future MDs, PhDs and members of the STEM workforce- that happened because I made a space for them to discover. I crafted a project, I taught them how to think about it, I encouraged them when they messed up, I helped them over the hurdles, and I kept them from blowing themselves up while doing it.

…summer research is so incredibly valuable. But, it isn’t free.

So, what am I saying?

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Training Kelly on the sonicator

We need to think differently about our models of education. Because side-by-side at the bench… magic happens there. The models of education from the last 50-100 years value instruction by one voice from the front of a classroom, but I’m telling you – the biggest impact I’ve had as an educator, it hasn’t been because I gave a lecture. The moments I’m proudest of…the students that I remember 10 years later,  those students learned and those relationships were forged elbow to elbow at the bench.

And those outcomes – they are worth paying for.


mc-pictures-kitchen-chemistry-at-muhlenburg-co-002~Dr. Keri Colabroy is an associate professor of chemistry at Muhlenberg College and the Undergraduate Research and Scholarship Coordinator on campus. Her research with undergraduates investigates enzyme mechanism and kinetics in bacterial biosynthetic pathways.

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