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I am currently in high school in the USA, and it is relatively common for students to work with various researchers in the summer. The majority of the work done is the medical/biology fields, and I would like to know whether this is a common practice (or a possible practice) in areas outside of biology and medicine.

The biology and medicine fields make sense for several reasons:

  • My area (a large US city) has a large biology and medicine faculty (especially because it is considered a "hub" for medicine)
  • Biology and (to a lesser extent medicine) seems to be more accessible to a high school student with a background in the AP curriculum and the medical programs available to students at the local districts. Subjects like mathematics are hardly accessible to undergraduates, much less high school students.
  • Biology and Medicine are largely laboratory sciences, while the same can not be said about things like mathematics. Furthermore, the social sciences and the humanities (less present in my area, but still significant) seem to be nearly absent in summer research type work.

It makes sense, therefore that with a large population of students wanting to be in the medical field, and a large research faculty, that the practice of either formal (through a program), or more informal (E-mail a researcher for a spot in lab rotation), research happens in these fields. So, is there a similar practice in mathematics, physics, the social sciences, or any other area of science?

EDIT: In response to amlrg's post I have some further questions: how can I tell if a researcher in physics or math is studding a computational area? How should I go about approaching such a researcher>


It is interesting to note that the fact that a similar thing does not happen in the non medical/academic disciplines popular around here. For example, as an Engineering hub, you might expect that it would be common for students to shadow or intern with engineers, but this is much less common than high school research in academia.

  • For what it's worth: I have high school summer research interns every summer in my engineering lab, and I know others who do too. But only through formal programs. – ff524 Jun 1 '14 at 1:54
  • I changed tags to add US, as it is country-specific; the long digression about medicine is somehow an another topic, with some good guesses, but I think - not all (and may deserve a different question). – Piotr Migdal Jun 1 '14 at 11:43
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This is not really a proper answer, but rather more like a stretched out comment. In the field of biology, lab hands can be relatively quickly trained. Now, they probably won't understand much of the science that is going on behind the scenes, but doing some of the routine tasks of "pressing buttons", they can free the more senior researchers to do the more challenging parts of the research.

Mathematics, on the other hand, often requires several years of training before you can start contributing in any way and there is no good way to avoid this. A beginning university student might have heard of the concepts that are being researched in some lab, but it is unlikely that a typical high school student can do much. This is all something that you already mentioned in your question.

Having said this, many things in the field of computational science (be it physics, mathematics, astronomy, biology, sociology, or whatever) are rather mundane and could easily be done by someone with a limited knowledge of the field (and I remember there being a recent example in astronomy where a high school student coded up an algorithm to find some shapes of galaxies/starts/something, and it worked so remarkably well that it ended up being published, but I could not find the reference right now). If you truly are motivated enough to contact and seek advisers in your area yourself, I am sure that many would be happy to show you the ropes. Don't be too discouraged, though, if some refuse (or do not even respond), as they might be too busy doing their own research to train new people who will shortly be leaving the lab, anyway.

EDIT to reflect the revised question: I want to point out that earlier I suggested computational science, but there are also experimental physics (for example) labs, which might also have something to do for an interested high school student.

There is no separate department for computational science, because it is not really a study of its own; rather you can use computers in any field (for the sake of completeness, there sometimes might be a department called computational science, but its scope is usually more limited than my definition here). Suppose you were interested in physics at institute X. Go to the website of the department of physics of X and see what the groups are working on. Find the homepages of the individual groups (professors) and see if they seem to be using computers (it will usually be more or less obvious from the types of figures on the website, or they might just explicitly mention it) and if their research appears to be of interest to you. See their publications, and while you some of the papers might be behind a paywall, try Googling the titles and you might find them on arXiv.org or similar free to access preprint servers.

Now the publications themselves are often quite technical, don't get disappointed if you don't understand much, but the introduction section should often be more or less understandable. One of the things you might want to look for is to see whether the group is using some software package (they should cite it if they do), or if everything seems custom made. In the former case, a considerable amount of the work might be in preparing files for the software and with some training could easily be done by a high school student.

As for approaching a professor, and I am hoping that other users on SE might comment more on this topic, the best way, I think, is to have read a paper or two by the group and to point out in your email that you have a rudimentary understanding of the science and the scope of the work. I, and I am not even the group leader, get emails from students (often from other countries) looking for a position (bachelor's thesis or something similar) at our lab because they are 'engineers'. Being an 'engineer' hardly qualifies them for the rather specific work we do and shows that they have not done any research as to who to send the email to, nor to what the group is working on (as they never, ever, specify what they want to do or why they want to join our group, in particular). These types of emails probably never get a reply from anyone (although a high school student just might, for their lack of knowledge as to the specifics would be more understandable). Essentially the more specific you can get in showing your knowledge and asking some questions, the better.

Much of what I write about is a lot to ask from a high school student, and might not even fully pay off in the end (i.e. you might get rejected). I hope that in any case this gets you interested in reading academic papers and gives you a better understanding of what it is that scientists do.

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  • That is what I suspected to be true. I have two "follow up" questions: is computational science its own department? (i.e. if I go the university's website, where would I find the scientist working in computational projects rather than non-computational projects?) Secondly, and perhaps this deserves its own question, but how would I go about contacting such a scientist about working with them? – Juan Sebastian Lozano May 31 '14 at 17:00
  • @JuanSebastianLozanoMuñoz I'm not sure if you get a notification of my edit, so I am pointing out that I expanded my "answer" quite a bit (and again I am a bit hesitant in calling it an answer, for it is not very specific). – alarge Jun 1 '14 at 0:57
  • Thank you so much for this expanded answer, it is exactly what I was looking for. I am already relatively comfortable with reading physics, chemistry and biology papers to glean some meaning from them (no doubt that a lot goes over my head, but I usually get the general idea of the paper) and so I think that your advice is feasible and prima facie spot on. – Juan Sebastian Lozano Jun 1 '14 at 1:15
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You can look for organizations for gifted high school students. For example in Poland there is Polish Children's Fund providing possibility of research work in institutes. In US I am not much aware of possibilities, but there is Center of Excellence in Education organizing Research Science Institute each summer. Such programs are highly competitive.

Another route would be asking participants of Intel ISEF with topics related to your research interests.

And I know a number of people who went into some collaborations through informal routes. But more than often they were onsite, visiting some institute and talking with professors a lot long before starting collaboration (rather than meeting / mailing with the main goal of summer internship). In any case, there are many random variables, but if you are really motivated it might be worth trying!

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