Collaboration of a Different Sort: My Experience with Summer Research

Sam H Franz
Dec 30, 2019 · 3 min read
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I fell into the Honors Summer Fellows cohort program by way of recommendation: a friend who had graduated and was a member of the program herself had suggested that it would be a good way of working on my senior honors thesis, and my budding interest in graduate school, I thought, could be confirmed by an extended period of independent research. While I thought that HSF would be primarily comprised of self-directed research (and in terms of mere hours spent, it was), I didn’t exactly expect to be dropped into a community of passionate, smart, and collaborative young scholars who pushed me to complete some of the best work that I have in my undergraduate career.

Rightly, I had initially joined the HSF program because I thought its during-the-summer timeframe would allow a great deal of time for me to get ahead on a year-and-a-half-long thesis project that I had started the previous winter. I wrote elsewhere about how I tried to stay focused during this period, but one thing that I didn’t mention that article was the way that the HSF community facilitated my scholastic output: others that I worked with were always around to have conversations to discuss ideas, take coffee breaks, or hang out after a long day of thinking, researching, and writing. One thing that I learned during my time in HSF is the value of friendly collaboration and idea-sharing, but not in the sense of working together on a project or a specific set of problems. Despite the daunting fact that my thesis is mine and only mine, the ability to bounce ideas off of others, or learn about other’s projects, work habits, and interests helped augment my own thinking in ways that I hadn’t expected.

My thesis explores a group of researchers who worked on complex systems using computer simulations in the 1960s and 1970s (I’m a historian of science). After a weekend retreat where I was introduced to the other members of the cohort, I soon found out that at least two other members of the group were working on computer simulations of the universe — a cutting edge method of research in astrophysics. After a few brief lunch meetings and coffee breaks, I changed some of my own thinking about the way my researchers were conducting their own simulations at the same time (I hope) I was able to fill in these physicists on the roots of their research methods. I quickly learned to seek out these unlikely encounters with the hopes of adding new ways of thinking about simulation, history, and science broadly to my own project.

My second large take-away from the HSF program was its emphasis on self-directedness at the same time it provided a community of scholars that never made me feel lonely or burnt-out. I plan on attending graduate school for a substantial portion of my young-adult life, and so HSF provided a way of testing my commitment to academic work: the kind of life I lead during that summer mirrored, I hope, the sort of life that I will lead in graduate school. But, the summer wasn’t a monastic, individualizing slog either: I always felt comfortable reaching out to others in order to restore my confidence in my own project; I never returned from a meeting with another student without a new, exciting set of ideas to integrate into my project.

From weekly meetings with mentors to public engagements related to my project, my HSF time taught me that strong work habits always require some degree of collaboration and community. My summer struck the perfect balance between deep work and engagement with an excited community of researchers, each pursuing a different set of questions from my own, but in ways that contributed to the breadth of the ideas explored in my own project. Returning to my life as a regular, class-taking student made me miss the brief time that I had as a member of the honors summer cohort, but it surely taught me valuable lessons about different kinds of collaboration that I won’t soon forget.

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