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While some students are busy reporting, pitching or marketing at their largely unpaid internships this summer, others are preparing for their futures a bit differently. Through the many summer research programs in and around Boston, students are spending their summers researching various science-related topics.

Doing research during the school year is very difficult, admits MIT sophomore Matias Porras. “Summer research is a productive journey of self-discovery,” says Porras, who is studying this summer at MIT’s Langer Lab and the Massachusetts General Hospital. “[Summer] is a significant block of time in which the student is able to focus all of their energy and thought processes into a project.”

For 10 weeks at Tufts University, students in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates will be conducting independent research on projects ranging from cancerous protein mutations to hermit crab shells.

Many say that completing summer research will help them to determine which path to take in the future.

Drew Morrison, a senior at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, admits she is torn between continuing research or taking a professional route toward an environmental policy degree.

This summer, Morrison is researching hermit crab shells, or, as she puts it, “behavioral ecology and marine invertebrate recognition systems.” Morrison hopes to determine why hermit crabs switch to an optimally-sized shell in the presence of a predator, and if hermit crabs limit bodily growth to compensate for inadequately-sized shells. “Exposing myself to research in an alternate setting, with a new mentor and using a different taxa, may help me determine where I want to best target my science energy,” Morrison says.

Tufts University junior Robin Armstrong is participating in the same program, and admits that after being a camp counselor for the past nine summers, she has decided to try independent research this summer for the first time. With guidance from her former molecular biology professor Dr. Mitch McVey, Armstrong is researching fly genetics in a molecular lab. “I am at a point in my life where I need to start making decisions that will help me further my education in the sciences,” Armstrong says.

Armstrong claims she is also the type to never want to stop learning. “I believe this is what draws me to the sciences so much,” she says. “The field of biology is constantly changing and growing.”

Tufts University junior Catherine Coughlin is also studying genetics with McVey this summer, and has learned a lot from working in the lab. “The McVey Lab is a great place to work,” Coughlin says. “All the lab members are dynamic and helpful, and I am able to learn a lot from the conversations and discussions that go on in the lab.”

Student Samuel Knapp with research mentor Rose Abramoff. / Image via Harvard Forest REU blog

Boston College junior Tori Luu is involved in her own research program this summer, however.

Luu found that oceanography research opportunities were too limited in scope and number to satisfy her desire to train in oceanography research techniques. Plus, she was required to do an international language immersion experience as part of her scholarship program. So, Luu designed her own research project that incorporated everything she wanted to do in one summer.

“For the first eight weeks, I worked with the Ocean Acidification Research Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where our research focuses on understanding the carbon chemistry of the high latitude waters, which are particularly susceptible to the effects of [ocean acidification],” Luu says. “The second half of my summer is at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center in Panama, where I will be working with ecology people.”

The goal of her project, which is funded by Boston College’s Advanced Study Grant, is to understand the regional differences in the way ocean acidification is studied, claims Luu.

All the students said that they hope to continue doing research in graduate school.

Coughlin hopes to go to medical school and become a doctor. Having lab experience is both important and enriching, she admits, adding, “it’s important for doctors to have an understanding of experimental biology to understand how drug treatments and disease therapy come to be.”

For Luu, the project is “something that I’m interested in and will help me in the future,” with both a traveling aspect and some guidance as she conducts “hard science research.” Luu hopes to continue research next year and to study chemical oceanography in graduate school.

Completing summer research allows students to see research and work environments outside of school, says Lindsay Day, a proctor at Harvard Forest Summer Research Program in Ecology. “Summer research encourages a wide variety of research experience that can contribute to a student’s enthusiasm for science and a particular graduate program or research topic.”

Harvard Forest Outreach and Development Director Clarisse Hart expressed similar sentiments, adding that students become an integral part of the field station. “They see that science begins with rigorous field and lab work, but doesn’t end there,” Hart says. “It is followed by outreach and collaboration with the media, elected officials, non-profit organizations, schools and many other groups.”