Finding Your Niche Through Research

Steven McGrath (chemistry and geology) came to Pitt knowing what he wanted to study, but he found his niche when he got involved in research.

His interest was piqued during a class with Josef Werne, professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science. When he approached Werne to tell him that he wanted to do research in his area, Werne matched him to an interdisciplinary project, already underway.

The project analyzes the accumulation of certain compounds, called fecal sterols, in the soil from the Titicaca basin of Peru. The accumulation of these compounds can help modern day researchers determine if pre-Incan civilizations inhabited the area and whether or not they were herding civilizations.

The project epitomizes the interdisciplinary spirit that defines the Dietrich School.

Werne explains, “This project came together as a collaboration between myself, Mark Abbott—who is the chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Science with expertise in taking sediment cores from lakes—and Liz Arkush, an archaeologist in the Department of Anthropology who is an expert on understanding pre-Incan cultural transitions.”

“This project ends up utilizing people with very different skill sets to combine chemistry and anthropology and he paleontology together,” Werne continues. He explains that what McGrath is doing for his part in the project is analyzing the organic compounds in the sediment core samples collected by Arkush.

McGrath is quick to point out the value of working on real research projects instead of simulations in a lab. “You learn a lot more because the trial and error exists so much more in a lab than in a classroom, and you get hands-on experience with people who are doing research, not just made-up experiments,” he says.

McGrath plans to continue his research and pursue a master’s degree after graduation, citing his research with Werne as a deciding factor in that path. “It’s interesting to get the grad school experience before being in grad school,” he says.

Werne says that he has seen the research experience help many students determine what they want to do next, noting that those decisions can range from, “Oh I want to go to graduate school and do this for research!” to “ Oh, I hate this and I will never go on to do research in grad school.”

Werne claims that either way it’s a useful experience, saying, “Better to know that now than after a couple of years of grad school.”

But the thing Werne says is most fulfilling about working with undergraduates on research is the moment “when the spark hits.”

“When they first start out, a lot of students want to get some experience, but they don’t really know what that means yet,” Werne says. “You can almost pinpoint the moment when they get it and they realize, ‘Oh! This is what I’m doing.’ And they suddenly start to ask very different questions and it really changes the way they’re understanding the work. They take ownership of it as their own project and it really lights them up.”