Lab Hunt

Disclaimer: This isn’t intended to read as a formal blog post–just a few ideas about a challenge that many undergraduates might face.

At a highly research-centric university, it comes as little surprise that many undergrads seek engagement in some form of research during their time at school. Whether it’s a first plunge into a research project through university-sponsored UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) or thoughtful, independent work on an honors thesis, one might argue that one of the most challenging obstacles when setting out to “do research” is foremost finding The Topic.

I recall my past experiences poring over binders that were the weight of phonebooks and scrolling through web pages–to the point that I had upwards of 30 tabs open–brimming with research projects. With each new project description I digested, I felt myself nodding along with each investigator’s noble scientific mission. Interested in all and dismissive of none, I began to despair. What topic should I choose?

Here are some things that helped me decide:

  • Was I genuinely interested in the topic? (Meaning would I be willing to read a lot of dense literature on the subject? To claim one studied galaxy clusters sure sounded awesome, but how long could my interest last if that was my only motivation?)
  • Who would I be working with, and could we work well together? (Not just a research mentor, but an academic/career/life mentor)
  • How much responsibility and contribution could I come to have in the lab?
  • And finally, How much would I learn?

What are your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment,

Annie Xiao



Spring Break

Gender Differences in Expectancies and Experienced Alcohol Related Consequences on Spring Break

Christie A. Bagne and Megan E. Patrick

Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan

By: Arthur R. Wandzel


Thanks to MTV, and to pop-culture movies such as “Spring Breakers,” American youth associate college Spring Break with uproarious merry-making and festivities. More than just a pause in the academic calendar, for many, Spring break represents an opportunity to break out of social convention, to unleash the repressed energy that has been previously channeled for midterms, projects, and papers. It sum, it represents an un-seized opportunity to party. And do not let U of M’s reserved scholarly atmosphere to tell you otherwise; this conception is commonly held across university campuses nationwide. In some sense, it is a college phenomenon, and this author is not alone in thinking so.


Past studies provide ample supportive findings for this view, specifically in terms of rates of alcohol consumption. When college students vacation on Spring Break they drink; not only do they drink, but they also commit atrocious crimes of stupidity. In scientific jargon, Spring Break is positively linked with peak drinking levels and an increase in alcohol related consequences among college students. A whopping 68% of Spring Break vacationers reported drinking more alcohol on their Spring Break trip than on any an average week of the year. This is impressive, but outside of nostalgic for-longing, one may ask, why else would researchers study Spring Break drinking?


The answer is clear and directed. These and similar studies seek to examine drinking behavior and alcohol-related consequences in vivo, so as to develop initiatives to prevent drinking in excess among this high-risk age group. As in its inchoate stage, the formal study of Spring Break drinking is far from complete. So far, very few of the specific personal and environmental variables have been shown to predict increases in alcohol consumption during Spring Break.


Fortunately enough, Christie A. Bagne and Megan E. Patrick, students working at the UofM’s Institute for Social Research, have examined this subject by answering the following research question: To what extend do gender, intended drinking, personal expectations, and types of trips, predict total and maximum drinks, and driving and physical/behavioral consequences on spring break? The results, you may find, are stunning.


The participants of the study were undergraduate college students (N=178, 49% male, 51% female) who provided survey data before (Wave 1) and after (Wave 2) Spring Break. Wave 1 of the data collection asked about expectancies around drinking on Spring Break using the Importance of Consequences of Drinking (ICOD) measure. Intended drinking was assessed with the question “When you drink during Spring Break, how many drinks do you think you will have total during the week?” Personal (e.g. “how likely to pass out, vomit, etc.”) expectancies were measured in Wave 1 with the prompt, “Please rate how likely each particular effect of drinking is for you during Spring Break.” Rankings for these measures consisted of a 4-point scale, rating from 0-4, 0=Not at all important and 4=Very important. Types of trips were recorded through a questionnaire. First, the scores of Wave 1 were compiled by each variable category and then compared by gender. Second, the scores of Wave 1 (before spring break) were matched with scores of Wave 2 (after spring break), so as to determine what predicts what via regression analysis.


On the gender comparison, males significantly outranked females in the following areas: intended drinking, predicted driving consequences, and anticipated physical/behavioral outcomes. Not only did males plan to drink more and experience more consequences, they actually did drink more and experience more consequences. According to C. Bagne and M. Patrick’s results, males out drank females by an average of 10 drinks over the week or the equivalent of one extremely regrettable night outing. Furthermore, they also had more driving consequences (e.g. how likely to drive unsafely). Overall, on this study of college Spring Break drinking, men beat out women; it was a battle of sexes won, suggesting a re-write of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, But Boys Wanna Have Funner,” for one week of the year at least. Yet, these findings are well in accord with previous studies.


What appear to be novel research findings, as reported by C. Bagne and M Patrick’s study, are the specific relationship between types of spring breaks and predicted drinking behavior outcome. Going on a Spring Break trip with friends (as compared to other Spring Breaks at home, at Ann Arbor etc.), predicted a higher number of total and maximum drinks. Going on a Spring Break trip with family or a friend’s family as well. This is foreseeable. An unusual finding, however, is service trips also predicted a higher number of total maximum drinks, which calls into question the validity of these trips—lopsided houses cannot be blamed by inexperience alone.


In conclusion, this study contributes a small slice of knowledge for a greater cause. By isolating key factors that predict increased alcohol consumption, factors such as gender, intended drinking or types of trips, C. Bagne and M. Patrick provide a valuable resource for the development of Spring Break interventions. These are the factors that can be used to identify students most in need of an intervention, sparing as a result an embarrassing story or in the most extreme case a lost life. The end result in any case is safety—a prevention of negative alcohol-related consequences. Heavy drinking takes a heavy toll. This study impresses this upon us. Sometimes, as C. Bagne and M. Patrick may attest, it is better to experiment on rather than with alcohol; a timely message.

Now go out and enjoy yourself. It’s Spring Break after all!




Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy (SISE)


During August of 2012 I attended the Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy (SISE) at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  It was a very worthwhile experience, one that included a diverse set of energy-related activities.  The entire Institute was ten days long, and each day was filled to the brim with energy lectures, tours, projects and talks.  The first three days were mainly composed of lectures by notable scientists, urban planners, architects and philosophers, covering every aspect of energy.  We discussed many of the basic energy technologies, global climate change, mitigation, ‘green’ planning and the philosophy of energy.


The conference attendees came from diverse backgrounds: undergraduate and graduate students in a variety of fields, energy professionals and university professors.  Once the conference planners were confident that everyone had a solid understanding of the matter at hand, we moved beyond lectures to other learning formats.  We took a day to tour Argonne National Lab (ANL) and learn about the energy research conducted there and throughout the US.  Argonne has a long history of energy work, including the first nuclear reactor, created by Enrico Fermi.  At the ANL we learned about the history and present efforts in energy research.


After so many lectures and demonstrations, the next phase was a group project to solve a real energy issue.  My group was tasked with the issue of ‘critical materials’, a term which refers to a wide variety of rare elements used in electronics and energy applications.  One common example is neodymium, a rare earth element used to make excellent permanent magnets.  These magnets are important for wind turbines, among other things, because they’re much lighter than iron-based magnets and produce a much stronger field.


There were several groups assigned to solve the critical materials problem and my group chose to focus on helium.  In addition to its obvious role in balloons, helium is irreplaceable in many cryogenic applications, including superconductivity.  Previously, I was unaware that helium is a critical material, but helium atoms are actually light enough to escape the atmosphere, making helium fundamentally non-renewable.  Our group’s solution was to end the government behaviors artificially lowering the price of helium (which therefore encouraging overconsumption).  Additionally, helium is produced as a co-product of natural gas extraction, but it is often uneconomical to extract the helium from the gas.  Therefore, we also support measures to encourage increased helium extraction.


Other groups were tasked with different challenges, including electric cars in the US and sustainability in various companies.  The best group (as determined by a panel of judges) proposed that the government should encourage adoption of electric vehicles by providing them to military service members as a re-signing bonus.  I think it’s a brilliant idea, and I would love to see it implemented.


Finally, a shameless advertisement.  I left SISE much better educated about energy, and with a great network of friends and colleagues in energy fields.  I would highly recommend the experience to anyone who is at all interested in energy.  Here’s the website: