Before coming to Penn, I knew that the university was renowned for its research capacities across a vast array of disciplines. With thousands of graduate students, and some of the best professional schools in the world, I expected that the central focus of Penn’s research funding and the bulk of research opportunities would be available to graduate students and faculty. With a fairly large undergraduate population, and undergraduates wouldn’t have the same access to the university’s formidable capacities.
In many respects, I have proven my own assumption to be terribly wrong over the past few years.
As a freshman in an American Constitutional Law class taught by Professor Rogers Smith (who, spoiler, is an amazing teacher and everyone should take his classes) I found myself deeply interested in the intersection between South African law and American law. I had spent the summer before my freshman year interning at a law clinic in my home city of Johannesburg, and many of the issues and ideas I’d dealt with there seemed to overlap directly with the ideas discussed in Professor Smith’s.
With a small leap of faith, I emailed my professor and set up a meeting to discuss my (vague and barely fleshed-out) research idea based on some of the concepts explored in class alongside my experience in a South African law clinic. Professor Smith -- who is almost certainly among the busiest people on Penn’s campus -- generously listened to me with interest, and suggested that I apply to one of the many undergraduate summer research grants available through Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.
With Professor Smith’s recommendation in mind, I sent out a series of applications for funding and mentorship via CURF. Come May of my freshman year, I had been awarded a generous grant to conduct research in South Africa over the summer, and I had the support of some amazing faculty members in Penn’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy throughout the process.
All of this is just to say: Penn’s wide array of research opportunities available to undergraduates means that you don’t have to have a groundbreaking, genius (or even fully articulated!) idea in order to feel confident enough to reach out to potential mentors and apply to programs. Penn’s faculty members are deeply committed to mentoring and inspiring undergraduates to pursue research, in any and every capacity, and (even though it may seem scary initially) are always delighted to hear a student’s research ideas and passions.
Since my summer of researching South African constitutional law, my research project with the Andrea Mitchell center developed into another paper with a professor who found my work interesting and helped me to get a research-based work-study job on an HIV-AIDs trial. My research work was tiring and tedious at times, and I still question my own ideas and approaches at every turn, but the reward of sharing the final product of my work with the greater marketplace of ideas always makes the process worth it, and leaves a lasting (if small) impact on the Penn universe that I know I’ll look back on with nostalgia for years to come.
Penn is a space for people with ideas -- share yours, with anyone, and you’ve already gotten over the greatest hurdle in the research process (luckily for us, the rest is pretty easy at a place like Penn.)