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The Elite Academic Underclass:

Research Assistants Are Not Xerox Slaves

By Madhavi Sunder

Getting close to Harvard professors isn't easy. At schools like Swarthmore, Williams and Vassar, professors know their students by name. But not, it often seems, at Harvard.

In fact, one of the most frequently cited drawbacks of the University is based on the perception that Harvard professors are either too famous or too busy to be bothered by undergraduates. Often intimidated by the thought of speaking with "larger than life" professors, many students wander through four years of Harvard without ever going beyond crowded classroom encounters with faculty members. Professors are inaccessible to those who can learn the most from them, discouraged students often say.

But there are some undergraduates who make a special effort to take advantage of the resources available to them. "Harvard is what you make it," the bold will tell you. "If you take the initiative, the professors are there for you."

In pursuit of a level of faculty interaction that seems unattainable during the academic year, many students will wait out the undergraduate crowds and stay in Cambridge for the summer. They work as undergraduate research assistants, seeking to gain experience in their fields and hoping to endear themselves to one or more of the elusive masters of academia.

Mark O. Goodarzi '93, for example, has spent the past two months in a Harvard physics lab, working with Associate Professor of Biology Victor R. Ambros. Goodarzi injects DNA into mutant worms to locate specific genes.

"I'm constructing genetic mutants, "Goodarzi says. The budding scientist is eager to explain his work in detail, frequently using lingo that few but he and the professor can understand. "It's pretty complicated," he shyly acknowledges.

Although he has completed only one year of college, Goodarzi works full-time--about 50 hours a week--as a research assistant in the biology labs. He asserts that he did not get his job through special connections, but rather through his own persistence. Near the end of the school year, Goodarzi called a number of professors, asking if they had interesting projects he could work on over the summer. Little did he know his job hunt would introduce him to the world of genetic mutants.

It is a common misconception that summer research assistants seldom transcend the menial duties of an academic "go-fer," Goodarzi and others say. Summer interns are frequently portrayed as slaves to the xerox machine, pausing only to stir the professor's coffee. Interns are quick to counter, however, that they are usually assigned a full range of research tasks, often personally assisting the professor with important projects.

The reasoning behind the "go-fer" misconception, however, is not completely unfounded, they admit. Because professors' projects tend to be complicated, cutting-edge endeavors, it can be difficult to find meaningful tasks that undergraduates--with their limited experience--can undertake. And with limited funds and little time for training, even the most well-intentioned professor may be at a loss when charged with putting a research assistant to good use.

Several of this summer's interns say professors make an extra-special effort to make sure the work they give undergraduates over the summer is stimulating.

Jed D. Kolko '92, one of three undergraduates work in for Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein '61, say he and Feldstein both recognized the limitations posed by Kolko's inexperience. But, as Kolko says, internships such as his are meant to be learning experiences, not just jobs.

"Certainly in most things an undergraduate is not as qualified as a grad student," Kolko explains. "But I get the sense that [Feldstein] is as interested in my learning something as he is in my producing something for him."

"Otherwise," Kolko says, "he would have hired someone with much more experience."

Indeed, Kolko admits he has had to do some drudge work. While he has gotten to work on a couple of special research projects--one on student financial aid, and another on Japanese productivity growth--he has also spent a good part of his summer putting together the new readings workbook for Social Analysis 10, the introductory economics course which Feldstein teaches.

But still, Kolko says his internship at the National Bureau of Economic Research never leaves him bored. "These are projects that [Feldstein] has wanted to work on," Kolko explains. "It's not as if he created busywork for me to do."

"The key is to make a project that they can really handle," says Professor of Physics Gerald Gabrielse. "You have to be able to structure [the internship] in a way that everyone comes out fulfilled."

"[Feldstein] has been really good in suggesting directions for me to work in that would be interesting and challenging," Kolko says. "The experience wouldn't have been half as good if I had been all on my own working in a library," he adds.

Although professors may agree to supervise and instruct a summer intern, students are usually not highly qualified, and are seldom direct assistants to their "mentors."

Kolko says he actually sees Feldstein for only one hour a week. One research assistant, Mark J. Schnitzer '92, says he is fortunate enough to have weekly seminars with his professor. But most acknowledge that this is not the norm.

"I see him and we talk and stuff," Goodarzi says of Ambros. "I'm not working directly with him, but it's still the closest I've gotten to a Harvard professor."

Not Making Coffee

Like Goodarzi and Kolko, Akila Viswanathan '91 says her research job is "definitely not on the coffee-making side." A biological anthropology concentrator, the senior spends her time in the lab working on her thesis with Maryellen Ruvalo, a research associate in population genetics in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Her work focuses on genetic variability in chimpanzees.

Eva M. Silverstein '92 does research in quantum mechanical systems with Arthur M. Jaffe, professor of mathematics and theoretical science. Jaffe say he was pleasantly surprised how much he learned from working with Silverstein.

"This is the first time I've had a student during the summer," Jaffe. "We interact very much as if she were a graduate student and not an undergraduate."

"I think it's pretty unusual for an undergraduate in a theoretical subject to get to the research boundaries, and we've been able to do that to some extent," Jaffe says. "That's what makes it so exciting."

Gabrielse agrees, saying that a well-planned internship can be beneficial for both student and professor. "I think it's fun, and some of them make really good contributions," Gabrielse says of working with undergraduates over the summer.

Gabrielse says he usually takes on three or four undergraduate assistants every summer. In the past, he has even written papers with them. "And if they contribute in some reasonable way, sure, I put their name on it," he says.

Schnitzer is one research intern who has had that rare opportunity to co-author a paper with a professor. The paper--of which Schnitzer was the principal author--has already been accepted for publication.

Many undergraduate research assistants echo Kolko's sentiments that the professors who employ them have tried hard to make the experience worthwhile.

Dina Abu-Ghaidi '91, a research intern for Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor of Neurobiology Kathleen M. Buckley, says Buckley is "extremely concerned with teaching me techniques in neurobiology and biochemistry, and not in having me there just to wash the equipment."

But the task of creating an interesting summer intern program does not fall exclusively on the professor. Although professors usually initiate the idea for a project, it is the students who must rise to the academic challenge. With only a few weeks to become "experts" in their newly-assigned fields, student often spend the beginning of the summer in the libraries.

Spare Funding

If funds are available, most professors choose to pay their undergraduates out of their own research grants. The University also has a faculty assistance fund that supports student interns for limited amounts of time. If such funds are not available, students must finance their own research through grants and scholarships. This most commonly occurs when undergraduates work on their own projects, such as theses, for which they simply need a professor's guidance or assistance.

But professors says that these financial resources are not always that easy to obtain. "I know of very few funds available for [undergraduate internships]," Jaffe says.

"I think a lot more professors would gladly participate if there were the money to fund it," Gabrielse explains.

But for all their hard work, summer research assistants do not go unrewarded. Even when monetary funds are sparse, research jobs can provide experience--not to mention letters of recommendation--that can prove invaluable to further academic pursuits.

"If I can write a letter of recommendation and say that so and so worked in my lab and didn't break anything expensive, and really accomplished something, I think that letter is taken seriously at the other end," says Gabrielse.

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