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Campus Conversations with Aya Alayli: Pursuing Research at UW

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Washington chapter.

As a student at the University of Washington, you probably know how highly our school values research, especially in the STEM fields. At an institution that consistently puts out such important and ground-breaking research, it’s no wonder that many students seek out research positions as valuable experience. Attempting to join a research position on such a big campus, especially as a woman in such competitive majors, may seem daunting. That’s why we’ve teamed up with engineering student Aya Alayli to ask about how she became involved in research and for some advice on how to break into the research field:

What is your background in the research field?

“I have 1 year of research experience under my belt. Freshman year, I was able to join a Chemical Engineering lab, the Pfaendtner Research Group. My project was called DFT Calculations of the Reaction Mechanisms of Titanium Dioxide Synthesis, which is a fancy way of saying I was using a chemical computation program on the supercomputer Hyak to figure out the energy associated with the different steps of making Titanium Dioxide. I presented my topic at the 2021 UW Undergraduate Research Symposium in a 5 minute Lightning Talk.”

How did you find your research positions? How did you decide which ones to apply for?

“I had decided I wanted to gain research experience for a few reasons. I wanted to gain an understanding of what participating in research looks like so I could have a better idea of what I wanted to do with my degree. I also wanted a chance to explore a field I hadn’t previously considered. I came to UW wanting to major in Aerospace Engineering, but I quickly abandoned that idea. I used research as a way to explore the engineering majors that I was less familiar with. The way I went about looking for research was I went to the research page for the engineering majors I was most interested in, and I looked through their topics. I was particularly interested in renewable energy, so I looked into each faculty member associated with this topic. Then, I narrowed my list down a bit, and sent out cold call emails to about 10-15 faculty members. I used a template I found online, and included why I was interested in their lab, what skills I had, and asked how I could get involved in their labs. I also attached my resume and my transcript. Most of the faculty I emailed did not respond to me, which is totally to be expected. However, I was lucky, and Dr. Jim Pfaendtner said that I could attend his lab meetings, see if I was interested in their projects, and work under a post-doctoral researcher in his group!”

What did you learn through your research that you could apply to your future career?

“I learned a lot through my research. In terms of technical skills, I grew familiar with using the computational chemistry software Gaussian, and also learned how to use bash scripting to navigate the supercomputer Hyak. I learned how to use a few other programs as well, including Avogadro, a molecule editor and visualizer. But mostly, I learned how to learn, quickly. My research project required me to get familiar with multiple different programs in a short time span, so I became very good at navigating unfamiliar programs and googling what I couldn’t find myself. I also learned how to ask for help from my mentor, and how to communicate what I was working on to Dr. Pfaendtner. I was working remotely, which meant that I had to take the initiative on my work and in my communication. These are all skills I can apply to a career. When you start a new job, you have to get acclimated to new programs and systems quickly, and you have to be able to communicate and advocate for yourself.”

What advice do you have for women seeking research positions in a male-dominated field?

“The biggest piece of advice I have for women seeking research positions in a male-dominated field is to find other women. UW has several organizations aimed towards women in STEM, such as Society of Women Engineers, and Women In Science and Engineering. Having a support system of other non-men in STEM is incredibly important, especially when imposter syndrome is very common. I have definitely felt imposter syndrome when looking through the different faculty members and lab groups when I was looking for research. Most of the faces looking back at me were men, and I had to constantly remind myself that I am just as capable as any other person in STEM.”

Why is it important to encourage women to seek out opportunities in scientific research, specifically?

“It’s important for women, and other non-men, to pursue scientific research, because, believe it or not, gender and other identities have an effect on science. You might have heard of how a lot of drugs aren’t tested on women in clinical trials, which can have detrimental effects on women taking these drugs. Leaving women and other non-men out of scientific research means leaving out the perspective that differing experiences and backgrounds can bring, and has consequences beyond the research. Diversity in general has been shown to be advantageous, and lead to innovation and scientific conversation that considers new perspectives.”

If you’re interested in pursuing research like Aya and don’t know where to start, a great option is to visit the Undergraduate Research Program’s website, where you can learn about their events, seminars, and find opportunities on the research database. 

Shima is a junior at UW currently residing in Mukilteo, WA. She is majoring in Microbiology and hopes to someday become a physician. She enjoys baking bread, watching Teen Wolf, and practicing Taekwondo in her free time.