Graduate assistantships open doors, increase understanding

Professor of physics Matthew Redshaw said the best way to understand what it means to be a scientist is to do experimental work.

That's exactly what the four graduate lab assistants working with Redshaw are doing. They're working on research for their dissertations in which they help him design some of the components used in his overall experiment with nuclear physics.

The unique experience of being involved with Redshaw's research combined with the valuable lessons learned in the lab is allowing these students to expand their knowledge of what it means to be a researcher.

"The students get the experience of doing some real experimental work and getting involved in an actual project," Redshaw said. "Unlike the labs they do as a student, where they’re told what to do, they're doing something that hasn’t been done before."

Redshaw said it's normal for students to have to complete a research assistantship in order to earn their master's degree, but CMU offers something that isn't available at all schools.

"Although this is pretty typical in the physical sciences, not all places have paid assistantships for students, so that’s one thing that’s good about CMU. Basically all the students get supported, so that’s a big advantage for them," he said.

Curtis Hunt, one of Redshaw's assistants, said he has grown tremendously through his hands-on work in the lab, and his résumé has, too.

"I've had the opportunity to experience some of what's involved in building a new apparatus, including working with vendors, which I think gives me a more thorough résumé," he said.

Résumé-builder isn't the only thing keeping Hunt around.

"Compared to undergraduate labs, I've found this to be much more involved and much more independent," he said. "I've been free to find my own solutions to problems I run up against and make suggestions and recommendations. It's a long-term project which allows for much more freedom and discovery."

Paul Hawks also enjoys the freedom he is granted working as a graduate assistant.

"The most noticeable difference is that in a lab for a class you are working toward a known endpoint or result," Hawks said. "In research, you're looking to find an unknown result or to better understand and refine a known. Eliminating that final 'check' on your work forces you to be a bit more strenuous with your own methodology."

Redshaw pushes his graduate assistants to become real scientists in his lab.

"When you actually do research is when you really learn what it means to be a scientist and do real experimental work," he said. "I mean, in class you learn the theory, but it’s not until you actually apply it to real research that you actually understand what you’re doing."

For Hunt, his short time in the lab has opened a window of opportunity for something he might want to pursue the rest of his life.

"I came to CMU wanting research experience to put on a curriculum vitae, hopefully aiding in getting into a doctoral program elsewhere," he said. "One of the projects applied an interesting phenomenon I remembered from my undergrad electromagnetism class, images charges, which I found intriguing. So I jumped on it and haven't looked back"


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