Everyone starts somewhere. Before I applied to the Hamel Center’s Research Experience and Apprenticeship Program (REAP), I contemplated whether I was qualified. Back in high school, I had no idea that research was a viable career option and as a first-year student at UNH, I had no internships nor experience. I took a lot of classes, but they didn’t seem relevant to the advanced engineering project that I was interested in proposing. At least, not until I learned how to justify the skillsets that I gained from my courses in a meaningful way. 

To preface, if you are interested in any form of research, there is no escaping reading or writing. You will be doing a lot of both. As a chemical engineer, having a strong writing skillset and ability to review scientific literature is as important as being able to repair equipment and engineer reactions in the laboratory. When applying to REAP, one of the ways I highlighted my qualifications was by detailing the importance of my humanities discovery course—HUMA 444E: What Is a Criminal—in learning the ropes for proposal writing. 

HUMA 444E was a course that I signed up for out of left field, but it became one of my most influential courses at UNH. In the class, my professor assigned a major project that was completely open-ended and required me to formulate my own scope and direction, much like my future REAP project. I planned to stay close to home, looking for a topic related to Maine and New Hampshire as a starting point. I did not know what specific topic would interest me, so I reached out to members of the local justice system to help me narrow it down. Police officers taught me about their roles in law enforcement (even letting me ride shotgun during patrols). Regional libraries assisted me in reviewing primary source documents, like newspapers and memos, to learn more about the history of famous crimes and criminal justice reforms in the region. Even inmates at the Strafford County Prison thoughtfully shared their stories about life behind bars with me. Each conversation guided me closer towards identifying a topic to focus on. Notably, I never approached a project like this in high school. I was a bookworm, and that was all I needed to be to achieve good grades. But in college, the most valuable knowledge was beyond books or webpages; I had to seek it out. 

After gathering information on police patrols, the thirteen colonies, and life behind bars, I had to organize it. Or, in other words, I had a wide scope but no clear direction. In my writing, I tended to build grand narratives that explored many ideas rather than one. This left me struggling to connect the information together for weeks! I met with my professor multiple times to identify how I could build a stronger case for my project. He acknowledged that large narratives were interesting but also emphasized that key ideas needed to be laid out explicitly very early in the writing. The reader needed to have a clear, concentrated introduction that was not overwhelming. I experimented with focusing on one overarching idea and supporting my conclusions with many pieces of related evidence, much like building a credible court case. In doing so, I found a pattern between each of my sources: sheriffs. 

It turned out that the role of the sheriff in Maine and New Hampshire had a long, rocky history, gradually changing with population, technology, and authority. Sheriffs once rode horseback but now drive interceptors. They once possessed governing powers under the English monarch but now abide by checks and balances decided by a state legislature. Understanding why these changes occurred made for an interesting story. And now that I had a clear scope and direction, I returned to the library to find additional sources and sharpen the narrative. Draft after draft, my story became more and more accessible because the content remained constant while my expository approach was changing. Consequently, I realized that rather than adding new content, subtle revisions to my rhetoric, word choice, and prose structure made my writing stronger and stronger.  

In hindsight, this writing approach seems obvious. But without an initial direction, it was quite challenging to develop a comprehensive narrative. Learning to identify patterns between my source materials was also incredibly challenging because I had to keep careful track of my references. Accordingly, these lessons became invaluable when writing my REAP proposal one semester later. It was about catalysts, a substance that facilitates chemical reactions, rather than sheriffs. Although I shifted from the humanities to science, writing concisely with a clear direction was still the key to producing a robust proposal. I used the same strategies that I adopted during HUMA 444E and distilled my proposal into achieving one major goal by addressing three research objectives. Rather than deciphering Maine criminal code, I instead unraveled techniques on engineering chemical reactions. Rather than tackling many possible research directions, I selected the most promising ones and laid out contingency plans if the idea failed. Furthermore, identifying patterns between similar experiments gave me an intuitive pathway to make research plans. If I needed supporting evidence to defend my research objectives, then I backtracked how to collect it based on similar experiments reported in scientific literature. For example, to address an objective on synthesizing a new catalyst, I searched for patterns between research methodologies that would generate supporting data to validate the catalysts’ chemical characteristics. Identifying these patterns enabled me to quickly establish why my proposed objective was important and clearly showcase how viable the proposed methods were for a ten week project. Thus, changing the way that I approached my writing extended far beyond HUMA 444E, directly influencing how I thought about my project’s design and planning. 

When I signed up for HUMA 444E, I thought I was just satisfying a requirement. The topics were completely unrelated to my major. However, the skills that I developed during that course are reflected in every proposal I’ve written since. So, if you are on the fence about whether you are adequately prepared to write your first research proposal, know that you have already been learning the ropes for years in some familiar places. Focus your attention on redefining seemingly unrelated experiences or skills as future strengths and remember, above all else, your proposal must tell a clear story – not a long one.