Paths to Research: A Lot of Initiative, A Little Luck

By Gabrielle Simon (economics major, chemistry minor)

My research journey at Pitt has not been a straight trajectory.

The first lab I joined was due to serendipity: During my first year, I told a friend that I wanted to work in a research lab. She had gone through the First Experience in Research (FE-R) program, and the lab she worked in just happened to be looking for student researchers. At the time, I was studying microbiology, and the lab was focused on psychology and neuroscience. It wasn’t a perfect fit for what I thought I wanted, but I figured, “I’m in college, I should take the opportunity to try something new!”

Boldly Seeking Opportunities Brings Great Reward

I really enjoyed my time working in that lab, but after a year, I wanted something new. I had been talking a lot about wanting to switch to a lab focused more on hard science. One fateful day, as I shared this spiel yet again, the student I was talking to told me that there was a fair happening as we spoke for undergraduate researchers to connect with faculty research projects. I felt so lucky again! I finished my research for the day with 20 minutes left to get to the fair before it ended—but by the time I got there, few researchers remained. I headed home, disheartened.

Later that day, as I leafed through a pamphlet I had picked up at the fair listing all of the researchers who had been there, a few of the labs caught my eye. I decided to e-mail them cold, expressing my interest in becoming an undergraduate researcher in their labs. With a stroke of good fortune, one of the labs that responded was a brand new microbiology lab on campus! Not only did I get to do the research I wanted, I also had the privilege of becoming that lab’s first undergraduate researcher.

From the Lab to the Library: Natural Science Research Translates to the Social Sciences

My love for biologic research didn’t dwindle, but I started to look at my interests, passions, and career goals in a new way. When I started college, I wanted to become a cosmetic chemist, blending my passions for biology and cosmetics into a career behind a lab bench developing cosmetic products. Yet as I studied, I felt that I was losing site of what I really wanted to do, which is to make people happy. I’ve always been fascinated by how people make decisions, and I began to wonder if studying that—which is at its core the study of economics—could allow me to better achieve my goal. Could I use research in economics to understand the wants of others and become an influencer capable of delivering on those hopes?

I switched my major to economics and focused on my passions. I believe that there is a gap in research on the economics of beauty, specifically on how it influences the labor market, for example how a person’s attractiveness effects hiring practices and the trajectory of their careers. Driven by my own personal curiosity, I wanted to identify whether research and evidence already existed to answer my many questions on this topic, and what still needs to be determined. What information was out there, and what questions was I asking that had never been researched before?

There were not set undergraduate research labs for economics, so I looked for other options: I read up on the faculty members in Pitt’s Department of Economics, and found a few whom I believed could give me some guidance on resources to quench my curiosity. Once again, I sent out emails cold, expressing my interest and asking for support and guidance.

Dr. Werner Troesken, professor in the Department of Economics, graciously met with me and listened to my spiel about beauty economics being an under-researched field. He pointed me to studies that pertained to my interest and my research began. I combed through the library database for any research involving beauty and how it influences the market place. Within Pitt’s archives, I found a deluge of papers on the topic!

Research as a Springboard into Future Career

When I came back in the fall, I thanked Dr. Troesken for putting me on the right path and sheepishly asked if he wouldn’t mind serving as my research mentor, so that I could gather my findings and write about how the field needs to expand. Thankfully he said yes!

A term later, after countless hours of researching and analyzing academic papers for their strengths and weaknesses, I completed a research paper I am proud of and will hopefully use as a springboard for other research in the future. My main goal is to learn everything I can while I have the resources available to me!

I am grateful to the Dietrich School for allowing me the freedom to go into different domains. Without much hullabaloo, I was able to shift from the natural sciences to the social sciences. Along the way, all of my advisors listened to my dreams and didn’t question that I could make them a reality one day.

After graduation, I plan to start working in the beauty industry. The industry is only growing, and I want to grow with it, whether that be in a conglomerate or in a makeup startup. My research in economics will give me better insight into what consumers want and how I can best serve them.