Experience: Purdue Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship

No matter how you slice it, surfing is a nice way to spend a summer. You could surf the web. Maybe binge-watch all seasons of The Office (Xavier: Wait I thought that was what you were doing this whole time). Not interested? You could surf the waves. Contrary to the complaints of one Anakin Skywalker, the sand is really quite nice at the beach.

Or you could visit Purdue University’s website and apply for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Which conveniently abbreviates to SURF.

(Xavier: It’s almost as if they were trying super-hard to make an acronym or something.)

But just because the abbreviation is somewhat cheesy doesn’t mean the whole experience smells like cheddar. Far from it, in fact—my experience with SURF this summer was fun, informative, and challenging.

Plus, getting to have a fancy title like “Research Fellow” can be a good bit of fun.


The Application Process

Getting on the radar of SURF staff was pretty straightforward. I filled out their online application with my academic record and a couple of mini-essays. Then came the fun part: choosing my favorite projects from SURF’s curated list of Purdue professors and their research. There were plenty of groundbreaking research projects exploring different areas of science and engineering. A few liberal arts research options were listed as well. Having already chatted with a professor about his research, I wrote in his project before firing off the application.

SURF offer letters went out in mid-April. Getting one meant that you’d passed their competitive application process and were set for eleven weeks of research and a $5000 stipend. Looking back, I realized I worked so many hours that the stipend probably stretched out to less than $9 per hour.

But you don’t choose SURF for the lucrative cash payments (although the stipend will easily get you through the summer with cash to spare). An engineering internship will easily compensate at much higher wages. No, you pick SURF for the unique experience it offers.

The Experience SURF Offers

Upon checking in to the SURF orientation meeting in Purdue’s Mathematics tower, I found myself surrounded by just over 160 other students (called SURFers, we were told), whittled down from the hundreds and hundreds of applicants. I greeted a few guys I knew, but there were plenty others I hadn’t seen before—not just from Purdue, but from other universities around the world. A few professors, grad students, and post-docs mingled. I found a seat amid all the buzz, contemplating the not inconsiderable amount of IQ that was crammed into the room around me. Everyone here is going to change the world, I thought.

Turns out, that was sort of what SURF seemed to have in mind. To me, it felt like the summer program was designed to expose students to as much of the research world as possible so that they’d have everything they needed to start down the path to a Nobel prize or something (Xavier: Yeah, yeah whatever). Weekly “Professional Development Seminars” flooded SURFers with information about everything from grad school applications and funding to technical presentation skills and writing research papers. Purdue hosted world-class faculty to talk to students about cutting-edge research and starting companies.

Although that sounds like a lot, in reality, not much was spoon-fed to us. Throughout the summer, various deliverables like a published abstract and a full conference-style technical paper were expected from the students. SURF advisors read the work and offered feedback so that by the end of the program, all of the writings had a good degree of spit and polish (Xavier: Plenty of spit for yours, I’m sure). And of course, fellows were required to work fulltime in their respective laboratories, learning on the job while getting advice from their professor and an assigned graduate student mentor.

The lab was where most of the action happened. My professor introduced me to his team of undergraduate researchers and then it was go-time. Over time, I got to know different members of the team. There were over a dozen students there this summer (although I was the only one working as a member of SURF). Everyone had different backgrounds and experience to contribute, but all of them were smart, hardworking, and focused. And fun—we laughed a lot about everything.

There was the good stuff: We wrote plenty of code, read plenty of papers, and ran snazzy experiments on powerful computers (my project was about image processing on live network cameras, so we needed lots of computing horsepower). And there was the bad stuff: Even though we were working with state-of-the-art computer tech, we ran into roadblocks galore (Xavier: Discipline. Good stuff). Of course, that surprised no one. After all, true research involves stuff that nobody on the planet has seen before. As each challenge arose, the team found ways to overcome it. Every week, we’d video call with staff and faculty from our collaborating companies and universities to update on progress as well as current issues. I soaked in the fast-paced, collaborative environment and the fun approach to research taken by the team (although the occasional outburst of choice four-letter words from my teammates would remind us all that not everything was peachy here on Planet Earth) (Xavier: Exactly zero people need to be reminded of this). We’d often stay late at the lab or work extra from home, trying to sort out the Confounding Problem of the Day™ or make just a bit more progress on the codebase.

At the end of the eleven weeks, I’d collected experimental results from the project. Just in time to report at the Symposium, a gathering of students and top faculty. SURF was hosting the event to cap off the summer with a day of research presenting. Everyone was dressed to impress—smartly tailored suits, pressed blouses, analog wristwatches—the works. After check-in and a coffee, many SURFers were assigned to classrooms where they delivered technical talks to audiences of researchers. Still others presented their research posters before the crowds of people that filled Armstrong Hall’s large atrium. Judges sniffed around and kicked the tires as they evaluated the bold research posters and elegant PowerPoint presentations. Everything was executed professionally and so, even though the day was long, it was all quite fun.

The last day of SURF rose with the sun the next day. Purdue dished out a little extra cash for a banquet, complete with fancy drinking glasses and spiffy tablecloths. Our young, charismatic Dean of Engineering delivered the keynote, after which there were awards, smiling for photos, and much hand-shaking. Four other students and I were awarded “Top Research Talk” for our respective presentations at the Symposium, while another handful of students was recognized for outstanding research posters. Elated as I was to receive the award, I was most excited about the two weeks’ glorious vacation ahead of me before school started up again. While it was a lot of fun, SURF was also quite exhausting. I submitted the final draft of my technical paper, packed up my 2017 SURF T-shirt (they do give out swag), and was on a flight home to Texas before the next day was over.

So. Now that you’ve arrived at the bottom of the wall of text, here’s the deal on SURF: If you’re thinking about applying… (Xavier: Don’t be cheesy!)

Do it. (Xavier: DANGIT so cheesy)

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, but it is overall a solid opportunity. You’ll learn about research, and life in academia. You’ll get a chance to try out all sorts of skills alongside other students from all over the world. The experience is priceless if you’re even slightly considering applying to grad school. I came away from my summer with a whole lot, and if I had to do it all again, I would.

Oh, and did I mention the cool T-shirt?

(Xavier: *sigh* Yes, you did.)