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Other Feasibility of Research in High School

  1. Dec 19, 2016 #1
    Quick background: I'm currently a junior (grade 11) in high school who is intending to major in math and/or physics in college. Recently, I had a conversation with a college counselor that turned to my interests in math and physics, including my independent studying of the subjects. The counselor suggested that I look into doing research in one of the areas with a local university, and she gave an example of another high school student who is currently assisting in a biology lab at the same university. I would be thrilled if I was able to contribute in some way with a research group, because I am hoping to go into research as a career.

    However, the more I consider the options, it seems that getting research experience in either math or physics in high school is a bit far-fetched. In this thread, math research is stated to be out of the reach of a high school student, and in this thread, physics research is shown to be similar. Thus, I tend to think that research in high school would not be reasonable, and the example of a student assisting in the biology lab, which my counselor mentioned, probably does not translate easily into math and physics (my counselor most likely did not realize this when she suggested the idea).

    With that said, I wanted to ask on here before I totally dismiss the idea. Does anyone consider research in high school to be a feasible path to pursue, or should I look into other options? If you do consider it feasible, how would you suggest that I go about looking for and requesting opportunities? If it is not reasonable, what other options would you suggest? I've participated in the ISEF in previous years but didn't do so well beyond my school level, and I will probably apply to the Perimeter Institute's camp this summer - are there other possibilities that I should consider? Thank you very much in advance for your insights on this matter!

    If information about my background knowledge/experiences would be helpful, please let me know. Briefly, I think I'm more advanced than the average high school student (I know basic calculus, linear algebra, and classical mechanics), and could put in the effort to learn some more (undergraduate) material if necessary to pursue research. Additionally, I know basic programming (C++ and some Java) that I could improve my skills on if it might be especially helpful to a researcher (I think I could complete a few programming tasks that might be just an annoyance to the others in the research group).
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 19, 2016 #2
    Not really unless you have some utterly new concept and can provide strong evidence of it.
    Even Einstein had to hang on until he was 20 something and published his theories before his ideas were taken seriously.
  4. Dec 19, 2016 #3
    My undergrad research group had a few students join the summer after their senior year of high school. They were used more as code monkeys/slaves than valuable research members.
  5. Dec 19, 2016 #4
    As pointed out in the other thread, we have had considerable success mentoring student science projects, including math and physics. The worst competitive outcome for a student we mentored was fourth at a regional fair in a very competitive state (NY). Our students competing at the state level are batting 10 for 13 winning 1st place in category and 12 for 13 winning 1st or 2nd.

    All our students desiring to publish papers have done so. Combined with a published paper, science fair outcomes, and mentor letters of recommendation can have a big impact on college admissions and scholarships. Read the other thread carefully as well as my Insight article:


    After that, send me a PM if you want further assistance trying to find a mentor, brainstorm project ideas, and otherwise move forward.
  6. Dec 19, 2016 #5
    Thank you to everyone who has replied so far!

    Do you think that the students gained any valuable skills out of the experience, or was it not a very effective use of their time? Also, did their benefits to the lab group outweigh the costs (i.e. did their "code monkeying" actually help anything or was it a hindrance to the research)?

    Thank you for pointing me to your insight article and also offering to assist me with moving forward! I've read your insight post and the other thread, and it looks like doing a project like those you mentioned might be exactly what I was looking for! I'm going to look at the past projects more closely (and read the papers) in order to get an idea of what the project might entail, and do some research into the different science fairs and topics of interest. After I get a clearer picture of what a project might look like (and even just figuring out the right questions to ask in terms of assistance), I'll send you a PM if it looks like something that I can do.
  7. Dec 20, 2016 #6
    Honestly, they spent a lot of time learning things that they would learn later anyway. Teaching someone how to program when they take "intro to programming" the following semester isn't a good use of anyone's time, the same goes for the physical concepts. Once they were taught, their code monkeying did save other people time, but only in the sense that instead of taking time to make a plot, you could say "hey, go make a plot of this vs. this with X, Y, and Z parameters".

    I started research my first semester of college, and I'd say that doing so was a great experience because I got to learn earlier than most that research was where I wanted to be, so I got to redesign my entire 4 years around that. In the end, I think I saved my professors more time than I took from them, but this would have been more true had I waited a few semesters so I didn't have to learn everything twice.
  8. Dec 20, 2016 #7
    The ways I used programming in physics research were always much more valuable in terms of my long term development than what I learned in my programming course and what I've seen other students learn in theirs. Real research applications are much different from classroom exercises.

    My advice to most students who want to get into physics labs quickly is to learn programming so they have something tangible to contribute. In our lab, we also have students using spreadsheets to implement simple ideas from Calculus and statistics repeatedly, many times before they have taken those math courses. They report it makes those courses easier to pass when they get there rather than it felt like time wasted learning something twice. A time or two we've even had high school students solving differential equations in spreadsheets. Not sure anyone would have been helped by waiting years for them to get to Diff Eq in college.

    My freshman research experience was spent working on a crawfish farm at the LSU Ag facility rather than in a physics lab. I didn't yet have any skills useful to the physics labs, and none wanted to take a chance bringing an unskilled freshman up the learning curve. I would have learned a lot more in a physics lab, even had it required learning to program before I took a programming course.

    And yes, programming was my main responsibility in all my undergrad physics research jobs. I never felt like a "code monkey," but rather as a valuable contributor to important projects. It led to two publications in esteemed journals and letters of recommendation that were key in getting into MIT, Stanford, and Princeton for grad school.

    The key to getting into research groups as a high school student or undergrad is having some outstanding skills and qualifications to put on a resume to separate you from everyone else who comes knocking. Programming beyond introductory coursework is one important thing to set you apart. Published papers is another.

    One student we mentored in high school had her resume rise quickly to the top of a very large pile and had the lab director who hired her dancing. None of their freshman hires last year got hired back, but he is now doing backflips to keep her over the summer and next year. She can program. She can analyze data. She can prepare publication quality graphs. She can do background research. She can write papers. She actually doesn't like to program.

    But to pry the door open to research opportunities, you have to be willing and capable of being productive in the group's "grunt work." I'd much rather program in a physics research group than wade in a snake-infested pond checking traps on a crawfish farm.
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2016
  9. Dec 20, 2016 #8
    Thank you both for your further replies!

    Thanks for clarifying your view. That's along the lines of what I expected, but I am glad to see that the students were able to have some positive impact on the lab. Would you say that it is better to wait until the first semester of college to begin research (instead of starting in high school), and if so, what factors contribute to making the delay more beneficial?

    Thanks for highlighting the importance for programming, as I wasn't completely sure what I should prioritize. How proficient in programming would you say one needs to be in order to contribute to a lab? In addition, what languages would you recommend for one to learn proficiently (or does the choice of language even matter in research)?

    I would be just as happy contributing with programming or doing "grunt work" with a research group as I would with any other opportunities that might be available at this time. My fear was that I would not be helpful to the lab or gain any valuable skills from the experience, but it looks like your experiences indicate otherwise. Additionally, you mentioned publishing papers as another way to set oneself apart from the crowd for research positions. but I assumed that publishing would tend to come after getting a research position. Are you saying that one could pursue publication with a project similar to those you mentioned earlier, and then get involved with a research group after the project?

    From what I've gathered, there are two options available to high school students: doing a project with a mentor or getting involved in a research group. While these two options are probably not entirely disjoint, I would think that the intersection would be small (i.e. it would be difficult to find a science fair project that coincides with the goals of an active research group). Thus, which option would you recommend a high school student initially look into: finding a mentor and research project, or joining an already established research group?
  10. Dec 20, 2016 #9


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    Some perspective from the other side:
    1) You can't really call someone working ~12 hours a week over the summer a slave.
    2) Code monkeys/stock solution preppers/cell line growers/technicians in general are waaaaaay more valuable than you're giving them credit for. It's a far better use of everyone's time if you give high school students a task that looks like grunt work, because a) they have a reasonable chance of succeeding at it, and b) it frees up the (much more expensive) time of scientists who are further along in their careers to do more value-added work, like designing experiments/formulating theories/etc.
    EDIT: I work in a gov't lab, and we consistently have high schoolers come through over the summer. Most of them have gone on to do quite well.
  11. Dec 20, 2016 #10
    Odds are neither you nor I can guess right about which programming language you'll need or how proficient is "good enough." Odds are you may have to learn a new language quickly and grow significantly in your skills to go from where you are on your first day to where you'll be useful. But odds are if you know at least two languages (through the level of passing an intro class) and at least one language through the level of some real projects (numerical analysis is more valuable than gaming), you come up the learning curve quickly enough when you need to. Sometimes you'll have the freedom to pick the programming language. Other times, you are starting with stuff someone else wrote, or a library that works best with a given language. In the world I've rolled in, FORTRAN, C, and LabVIEW have brought home most of the bacon.

    It usually does not take too long after they see you consistently doing a good job with the "grunt work" that they start to test your capabilities with more important tasks. They usually keep you out of the critical path, but try to provide more interesting and challenging tasks to see what your limitations are and what you can be trusted with. It helps to impress one of the grad students or one of the techs. They put a good word in with the PI (Principal Investigator, the prof in charge), and the gears start turning about how to use you better.

    But you need to be patient at this stage. Jumping ship for what looks like a greener pasture just means you get to reset the clock, start over with grunt work, and begin again the job of proving yourself to a new research group. Getting the door as a freshman gets you started proving yourself early, so most of your undergrad career can be doing more productive and interesting things.

    My view is that a really good project for an ISEF-affiliated fair is usually publishable. We take care in the projects we mentor to guide in this direction so a student has that option open if they choose. Now often, someone at the PhD level needs to step in and edit a JSHS-type paper heavily so that it meets professional standards, but that just means you end up with a co-author or two. Usually, the student retains first authorship. Different colleges have different paths to research groups in each department. Math tends to be harder to get a foot in the door than experimental physics.

    It usually does not take too long after they see you consistently doing a good job with the "grunt work" that they start to test your capabilities with more important tasks. They usually keep you out of the critical path, but try to provide more interesting and challenging tasks to see what your limitations are and what you can be trusted with. It helps to impress one of the grad students or one of the techs. They put a good word in with the PI (Principal Investigator, the prof in charge), and the gears start turning about how to use you better.

    But you need to be patient at this stage. Jumping ship for what looks like a greener pasture just means you get to reset the clock, start over with grunt work, and begin again the job of proving yourself to a new research group. Getting the door as a freshman gets you started proving yourself early, so most of your undergrad career can be doing more productive and interesting things.

    The students we mentor run into a lot of other students at the ISEF-affiliated fairs, JSHS, etc. that did their projects while attached to an active research group as some contribution or spin-off to the activities of the larger group. Most of these students "knew somebody" that works in the lab: parent, uncle, close family friend, etc. There are not many chances to get these sweetheart deals just sending in your resume. They don't usually post job ads for high school students.

    When a student comes to us looking for a mentor, we discuss a wide range of possibilities. If they are a hard worker, we usually are willing to continue the relationship on whatever project they pick. In the brainstorming phase, we discuss lots of different possibilities, which of course, includes lots of things we are particularly good at. There are often opportunities to join some of our ongoing projects, but there may be hurdles doing some of the DoD stuff for non-citizens. In other cases, they can't or prefer not to get to our lab facility and we can't figure out how to do the experiment at their local facilities.

    Project selection is about finding a topic everyone is happy with. Many students have so strong a focus on a "winning idea" that they leave a lot of very good ideas on the cutting room floor that would actually yield more interesting publications in higher profile venues. Parents are concerned with cost, safety, and travel. Students want to win. Mentors need something within our capabilities to support adequately. If the student needs to borrow equipment or needs immediate supervision of the experiment, all those logistics need to be worked out without putting expensive, mission critical equipment at risk. About half the projects we mentor are remote deals - we never meet the student in person. But we have a long list of "back burner" projects just waiting for a student to express an interest.
  12. Dec 20, 2016 #11


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    In general, any high school intern will not be qualified to be anything more than a gopher at any professional job....but that should be ok. It still looks good on a resume. And equally important is that you get to see what it is like to do the job you are, for the most part, watching. You learn how to talk, act, dress and what a typical day looks like. Many people get out of college having no idea what a "real job" even looks like.
  13. Dec 20, 2016 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    Some more perspective from the other side. I am simply not allowed to bring on anyone under 18 into anything that looks like a laboratory. Liability concerns.
  14. Dec 20, 2016 #13
    Thanks for posting this, as it reminded me that I should still look into interning with a profession, research or otherwise, for the less tangible benefits (e.g. knowing how to dress professionally on a day to day basis).

    I hadn't even thought of the legal issues that might arise from assisting with a lab group while I'm still a minor. Thanks for mentioning this!
  15. Dec 20, 2016 #14

    Andy Resnick

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    Several of us (Physics department) semi-regularly provide research experiences for high school students during the summer. In general it's valuable for the student and a positive experience for everyone concerned. Students come in and work on an already-established project as opposed to being independent. In terms of liability, there is additional paperwork (essentially, permission slips), but nothing onerous. The students are also paid (hourly).
  16. Dec 21, 2016 #15
    I've met high schoolers who presented research at APS conferences; they mostly did data analysis and programming as others have said, but it was still convention worthy research (1 or 2 of them did their projects at CERN). My guess is that they were lucky to be well connected to get in on such projects, on top of being quite advanced beyond their years (skipped grade levels and such) but they made the use of the opportunity and were able to contribute; this is a great route to go through before college. In engineering you have more and more high school related groups that having one doing robotics, amateur radio, small satellite groups, fusors, among others that yield projects that an incoming freshman could definitely put on a resume to show to a professor that they want to do research with. However, yes, most of what you'd be doing is akin to code monkeying and you most likely won't be making any ground breaking results; but that's okay, most people wouldn't have the experience you would have on day 1 of freshman year. Also Feynman did some research in biology and chemistry labs, still won the Nobel Prize for Physics; at your age research of ANY sort will be beneficial, best of luck.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2016
  17. Dec 21, 2016 #16
    Thank you to everyone who has replied so far for your thoughts on this topic! I am glad to see that there are indeed possibilities for high school students to contribute in some way to research, even though the opportunities might be difficult to find. I also appreciate those of you who highlighted the reasons why it might not be feasible for high school students to due research as well. Because of the excellent advice given by experts in this thread, it is certainly going to be a reference that I will give to others in the future who have similar questions to mine.

    Personally, I will most likely be pursuing a research project similar to the ones that Dr. Courtney has mentioned. This is due to the difficulty of joining a research group as a high school student, like many of you have mentioned, alongside with the fact that a project seems to be an excellent way for me to get my feet wet.

    Thank you all once more for your thoughts on this subject. I am truly appreciative of every one of your comments.
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