May   2012



Find a Mentor for Your Summer Research Project

Editor, Porter Sargent Handbooks

Over on the CollegeXpress Science & Engineering blog, Adam recently wrote about a 17-year-old who broke new ground in cancer research.  Angela Zhang, a senior at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California, titled her project “Design of Image-guided, Photo-thermal Controlled Drug Releasing Multifunctional Nanosystem for the Treatment of Cancer Stem Cells.”

I can’t even pronounce most of those words, let alone define them. But don’t be intimidated by Angela’s work—she may be a brilliant young scientist with a bright future, but she had a great source of advice in her research mentor at Stanford University, Dr. Zhen Cheng.

Summer is a great time to work on research projects outside of school, but unfortunately the application deadlines have passed for the formal summer research programs I wrote about last year. It’s also a little late in the game to get started on an independent project, but here are some tips to help you take a cue from Angela and do your own research with a professor this summer.

Finding a project

If you were about to stop reading this post because you’re “not a science person,” stop right there. Research isn’t limited to fields like biology—you can find research topics in subjects like political science or international relations. Did you think college professors just teach two classes a semester then call it a day? They actually spend much of their time writing and submitting research papers to academic journals in their fields

It’s important to narrow your research interest from a larger subject (i.e., biology) to a specific field, like microbiology. If there was a class you really enjoyed this year, was there a certain unit that specifically caught your interest? Ask your teacher for advice on a research project, and search the Web for examples of past projects—the Directory of Open Access Journals is a great free resource for full-text scientific and scholarly research. If one of your classmates shares a similar interest, you can even collaborate on a project. Tag team!

If you don’t have a research project of your own, you may also be able to contribute to a professor’s current project. There might be opportunities to continue your work through the summer and into the next school year.

Contacting professors

Living near a large city or a college town makes it easier to work with a professor, but you may be able to find someone willing to mentor you remotely. Check the websites of colleges for their lists of faculty in departments related to your project, and read their bios. Look for professors with specific research interests that match yours and jot down their names and e-mail addresses. Try to focus on younger faculty who teach undergraduate courses, instead of older, tenured professors with tons of published articles.

Your e-mail should be formal and succinct. Start by introducing yourself with basic information like your high school and grade. If you have a research project of your own, give a one-paragraph description of what you’re trying to accomplish. Or if you aren’t pursuing an independent project, talk about your interests and how they relate to the professor’s past research. Include a short résumé listing advanced or AP course work or extracurricular activities related to your field of choice.

The more e-mails you send, the greater the chances you’ll find someone willing to mentor you or allow to help with a project. You won’t be contributing at the level of an undergrad or grad student, so be open to helping with lab work or data-entry projects if that’s what you’re assigned—it’s still great experience for your own future project work.

If you’re willing to work hard, the rewards are obvious: research experience to list on your college applications, and a relationship with an accomplished professional. And if that didn’t get your attention, did we mention that Angela Zhang also won a $100,000 prize from the Siemens Competition?  

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About Jim Martinho

Jim Martinho

Jim worked as an Editor at Porter Sargent Handbooks from 2005 until 2012, following his graduation from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. Jim’s first task at Porter Sargent was to research summer programs for the Guide to Summer Camps and Summer Schools, published since 1924 to describe recreational and educational summer opportunities for kids and teens. Jim helped to make the Guide’s 1600+ program listings fully searchable online at In his free time Jim enjoys reading, playing guitar, and seeing live music. He spent his own high school summers in suburban Boston working at a supermarket and freelancing for local newspapers.

You can circle Jim on Google+, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his CollegeXpress blog.


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