SIAM News Blog

Research: It Doesn’t Take a Genius

By Chad Topaz

In St. Paul, MN, where I live, temperatures dropped to -22 degrees Fahrenheit early this year, and frigid temperatures continued on for several days, as they did in many parts of the country.

Naturally, I am thinking about summer. Because I am a faculty member at a liberal arts college, undergraduate summer research plays a huge role in my life. Though summer is months away, right now is the time of year when students start to think about applying for summer research experiences, including REUs. And before too long, faculty will start thinking about whom to select for participation.

What message does our academic culture send students about research? Many students I talk to have the impression that research is something they cannot do. They envision research as consisting of Einsteinian leaps of knowledge attainable by only a few geniuses. I don’t even like to use the word genius (even though I will in this post). I disagree with the fundamental framing it creates, and more practically, I think it’s clear that genius is subjective and contextual. Think of all of the people who, over the course of history, have made the transition from crackpot to genius or, in reverse, genius to crackpot.

Regardless, I am not exactly sure of why many students have this view of research, but I can conjecture that it arises from (1) natural fear of the unknown, and (2) the attitudes of other people, including, perhaps, other students and professors in the academic world. My own opinion, however, to paraphrase the Chef Gusteau character in the movie Ratatouille, is that “anyone can do research.”

I think the view that research necessitates genius is counterproductive and inaccurate. I worry that some students who might make meaningful contributions to the world through research (while of course, there are many other equally valuable ways besides research) are turned off by research-fear before they even start.

Even though faculty know from experience how research works, students likely do not. So faculty, be explicit with your students about it! What I tell students is that 99.99% of research progress consists of teeny, tiny gains in knowledge rather than Einsteinian leaps. Even to take these tiny steps we must stand on the shoulders of the many people who have taken many tiny steps before us. And tiny steps are worthwhile. And research is a community effort, and it is satisfying to be part of a great community of past and future scholars who will take tiny steps to move forward our understanding of and appreciation for the universe. And still, even though we are taking only tiny steps, it’s really hard. But very much worth it. And you can do it.

Nearly ever summer, I run a group of undergraduate researchers. I am very lucky to have had many good groups of students who all have worked hard enough in their mathematics courses to have built foundational skills. That said, my group this past summer was especially remarkable. So for you student readers, I’ve been reflecting on why these students of mine were such admirable and productive researchers (an outcome for which I take no credit). There are a few critical, basic attitudes and habits that they exhibited:

  1. They believed they could make progress. For some reason, they lacked the aforementioned research-fear. They had self-efficacy for the task. They were not put off by difficulty or failure. Sometimes they got stuck, and this did not seem to bother them, or make them think that they would not succeed in the end.
  2. They put in the time to make progress. I saw them in the lab for at least eight hours a day, and they were not on email or Facebook for most of that time. They were working. Still, they had take breaks to keep their heads from exploding, and this is very important too.
  3. They were ruthlessly organized. They kept research logs in GoogleDocs and directories of files in Dropbox and “readme” files in those directories in order to organize everything, and to be able to retrace their steps days later when they forgot what they did a few days in the past. Whenever they got new results, they wrote them up nicely in a manuscript file so that they retained in excruciating detail the most successful and relevant parts of the work they’d done.
  4. They collaborated. Each research project I ran last summer had two students on it. In a given team, sometimes both students did a task and checked each other’s results. Sometimes they sat down in front of the computer and coded together. Sometimes they divided and conquered, and updated each other on what had been done. I am convinced their collaborative habits more than doubled the total productivity they would have had as individuals working in isolation.
  5. They took ownership. They acted like the project was theirs, rather than like it was some really hard homework assignment I had given them that they were required to complete. They understood that I didn’t have the answer to their problem.

Still, they were not afraid to ask me for help, guidance, and opinions.

For faculty and students, what are some of your own attitudes about research?

This post is adapted from a post on the author's personal blog.

Chad Topaz is associate professor of mathematics at Macalester College. 

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