While some Pioneer scholars come into the program with a strong sense of the research topic they’d like to pursue, others come in looking for guidance in defining a specific research question within their general field of interest. To support students in developing their research, Pioneer Academics assigns scholars to a research concentration in which they spend five sessions meeting with a faculty mentor and a cohort of peers before selecting their topics. Pioneer scholar alumni from both scenarios have shared that the combination of freedom and support they received led them to identify a research topic that combined their areas of interest in unique and meaningful ways.  

One such student that came in with a broad idea of the topic she wanted to pursue is Cecilia (anthropology, 2016), a Pioneer scholar from China. The support she received in the cohort sessions helped her narrow her general interest in medical anthropology down to a specific research question. “I didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do,” she shared. “It was through the courses, and then some of the examples the professor gave in class [that] were really helpful in helping me to think [about] the concrete idea of my research.” 

Nabaa (engineering, 2020), from the US, described how the many options available within the STEM research concentration was almost overwhelming. However, she, too, found the clear direction her faculty mentor provided helpful. “My professor made it very clear that you need to identify any problem in the world…and then make an automated machine or any sort of machine that can solve that.”

Research concentrations may be directly related to a students’ area of interest or, in some cases, there may be a looser connection. Either way, students have the freedom to customize their research to align with their goals. For example, Pioneer scholar Ezgi (astronomy, 2019), from Turkey, shared that she felt free to do research in astronomy even though her faculty mentor was a professor of physics. 

At times, however, the connection between a student’s research concentration to their area of interest may not be evident initially. This was the case for Pioneer scholar Angel (psychology, 2020), from China, who was placed in a research concentration she’d never heard of—history of medical technology. Angel shared that attending an info session and speaking with admissions staff made all the difference. “They explained why they put me in this research concentration,” she said. Angel also gained a better understanding of the field of medical technology from the session—that it isn’t just about science and biology—and that it would allow her to explore the relationship between patients and physicians. When she indicated her interest in mental health issues, “they said I could also focus [on] that for my individual research…and I really like it, it turns out,” she shared. 

For new Pioneer scholars formulating research topics, Cecilia (anthropology, 2016) offered two pieces of advice: 1) communicate with professors; and 2) have an open mind. This is exactly what Pioneer scholar Journey (neuroscience, 2019), from the United States, did to customize her research to a specific topic of strong interest to her. “I talked to my professor about what I specifically wanted to research and how that might relate to what we learned in class,” she explained. Her faculty mentor then made sure that she could do that with the knowledge that was given as well as provided resources to tailor the information to her specific topic.

Cecilia spoke with her faculty mentor several times to hone in on a meaningful topic based on her interest in medical anthropology. “You want to communicate with your professor frequently and let him or her know what your specific interests are…They all want to help you to succeed.” After observing doctors in local hospitals to get a better sense of the issues in the field, she brainstormed further with her professor and was able to identify a unique angle at the intersection of medical anthropology and nonverbal communication. 

It was during a subsequent cohort session that Cecilia was able to pinpoint the exact topic for her paper. The professor provided students with pictures of nonverbal communication and asked what kinds of relationships they observed. “Then it came to me,” she said. “The patient-doctor relationship is a very special one, one everyone probably encounters in life. Sometimes you don’t think about what impact it can have on the results of your treatment or how well satisfied you are with the treatment from the hospital. So that really caught my attention.”

Cecilia also explained how keeping an open mind was an important part of her process. Ultimately, this is what led her to understand the value of formulating her own research topic. “If I didn’t come in with an open mind, rather just thinking that I only wanted to learn something about medical anthropology, that wouldn’t be as helpful as for me to formulate my own research topic.” As a result, Cecilia encourages future scholars to come in with an open mind and learn something new. “You’ll get some inspiration from it,” she said.

Pioneer scholar Catherine (neuroscience, 2021) from the United States spoke about the importance of keeping an open mind with regard to research concentrations and paper topics as well. “Coming into a program like Pioneer with a specific research question in mind… can be kind of limiting in terms of seeing the bigger picture, especially in terms of neuroscience because there are so many possibilities of where to go with research.” 

Catherine shared that the topics of her five cohort sessions were very different from her area of interest, but that she found this to be of value. While she acknowledged the usefulness of a direct correlation in terms of building background knowledge, she admonished that, “If [cohort sessions] are very different, that kind of opens up my mind to potential and possibility.” 

Like Cecilia and Catherine, Angel encourages new Pioneer scholars to keep an open mind. “If you are not placed exactly into what you indicated,” she said, “it might actually be a really good opportunity for you to explore something new.”

We can’t say it better than alumni scholars, like Angel, who ended up combining her passion for mental health with the research concentration she’d never heard of to write a paper on how medical technology applies to schizophrenia. So no matter your placement, as Angel advises, “Look for how your personal interests can combine with your research concentration,” and be sure to make use of the support available from Pioneer Academics admissions officers, faculty mentors, and peers.

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