So you want to get started with undergraduate research? Just ask.

Alyssa Shih is an atmospheric sciences major and a philosophy minor in the Class of 2026. On campus, Alyssa can be found on photography assignment for the Daily Illini or organizing events for the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) and Illinois Student Organization of Meteorology (ISTORM). Aside from a love of atmospheric research, Alyssa is a violinist and does Chinese dance, traditional calligraphy, and book binding in her spare time.

Alyssa Shih in front of a weather truck on the UIUC campusBefore I even started college, I knew I wanted to be involved in research. To me, direct involvement in something as hands-on as research would be how I figured out if my major was the right pick while also contributing to the scientific community. As a first-semester freshman, I didn’t feel like I knew enough to do research yet, but it was still a goal. During my major’s orientation class, our department head stressed that in this department, if we wanted to do research, all we needed to do was ask.

Because of that open invitation, I mustered the courage to bring it up to my advisor just to start the conversation. To my surprise, she immediately began brainstorming which professors studied what and who would have capacity for the following semester. After that meeting and an agreement to email professors to set up conversations, I visited the department head one office over to ask what he thought. Just like my advisor, he was quick to ask what I was interested in, offering names of professors and areas of interest and even offering to talk to some professors he was getting lunch with later. He reassured me that whoever took on a freshman would know that there would need to be learning along the way. Research works differently in every department, but for mine it was true that I just needed to ask.

After a few emails and conversations with upperclassmen, I found myself with a project, a massive dataset, and one credit hour of research on my course plan during my second semester of freshman year. I felt that underlying imposter syndrome, a sense that I wasn’t accomplished enough yet to be doing research, but I was never going to get there if I didn’t just start learning. I began teaching myself Python and navigating my huge dataset, running into so many questions and problems right away. I kept reminding myself that questions were meant to be asked and problems meant to be solved, so there was no shame in reaching out for help. My research advisor was more than patient with me, answering my questions and helping me solve those big problems.

Once I found firm footing in the technical aspects of what my research was, I took a minute during one of the weekly meetings to ask what the trajectory of the project was and why it mattered. Learning how to manage many gigabytes of data was intimidating, but I wanted to keep in mind what the big question was and how I could get there. Aligning the mini assignments and ideas my professor had every week with that big picture made the project really start to take form.

I’ve been doing research now for over a year, and I am so glad undergraduate research is so encouraged at the University of Illinois. Doing research led me to getting a Research Experience for Undergraduates through the National Science Foundation the summer after my freshman year, which strengthened my skills even more and gave me an opportunity to present at the national American Meteorological Society conference. Being able to ask big questions about the atmosphere and actually have the chance to answer them brings me a sense of fulfillment—this is something I do actually love to do that also means something to the world.

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t felt courageous enough to reach out to someone because no matter what it is, no one can say yes to you unless you just ask!

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Alyssa Shih