Penn bills itself as a research university, but what does that actually mean? Not what you'd think. Read on and have your mind blown. 

Nikki Lin (C '19) 

Nikki Lin doesn't describe herself as a numbers person. "Well, I shouldn't say a non–numbers person," she clarifies. She was excited to find a happy medium between qualitative and quantitative work in her political science research and names it as one of the most unexpectedly rewarding parts of her college career. She started her research with a summer project, which has since turned into an independent study with Professor Michele Margolis. The project aims to answer the question of why evangelical Christians supported President Trump in the 2016 Election. 

“So basically, we started, first of all, how do you assess what actually makes someone an evangelical Christian and then also what characteristics are related to that," she said.  "So like, are Christians very populist, are they very anti–intellectual, or does it have more to do with their views of government, and where does party affiliation fall into all of this, and that’s what we spent our summer looking into."

Nikki was drawn into the research project because she was confused about Trump's support base. "Her project was like ‘wow, this is something that I want to know,'" she said of Professor Margolis' research.  "I honestly am not a very religious person, so I hadn’t ever really thought about religion and politics together, but it’s definitely something that’s very big in America and I should learn more about it."

Ali Marcus (E '19) 

Ali is a sophomore studying mechanical engineering, focusing on the intersection of robotic and medical mechanical design. She worked in Dr. Michelle Johnson's Rehabilitation Robotics Lab at Penn Med last summer and decided to continue that work during the school year. 

"My whole life, I thought I had to choose between my interests in mechanical design and medicine," Ali said. She was thrilled to realize she didn't have to.

The lab overall makes rehabilitation systems for people with cerebral palsy, and stroke survivors. Over the summer, she worked there full–time on a project called the Theradrive, which is a stroke rehab system. It is meant to be affordable and implemented in places where the healthcare system is not as extensive as in the States. Now, she is working with the SmarTOY gym, an early method of cerebral palsy detection in infants before the common age of diagnosis. "It's essentially a baby gym in which the infant plays while being rigged with sensors," she says. "What they lie on is a force plate. When the baby grabs a toy, for example, we see how hard it can squeeze and whether there is a correlation between the force the baby can apply and whether or not this is a warning sign. We also track the baby with cameras to see if the motions are normal or abnormal for their age group." 

Lucy Chai (C '17) 

When Lucy started out in Professor Basset's psych lab, she didn't have a lot of coding experience. But she discovered a passion for computational neuroscience, and now she studies brain networks and how conductivity varies throughout the brain. Lucy has been working on a projet related to language and scientific literature. 

"If we model language as a graph, how does that graph change among iterations of scientific drafts?" she says. "When we model the structure of a paper as a graph and go through multiple revisions, the graph metrics will change from the first draft to final draft. Different types of graphs have different scaling metrics."

While Lucy enjoys her research, she admits "it's kind of scary because I always feel like I don't know enough, but really, you just have to be willing to embrace it because that's what research is for." 

This past winter, Lucy was awarded the Churchill Scholarship, which will fund one year of master's study at the University of Cambridge. The scholarship picks fifteen students per year for the award; Lucy is the eighth winner from Penn.

Her advice for those who are interested in research:  "Don't be scared of what you don't know. There is so much we don't know and you have to just go after it regardless of how you think the outcome will turn out."