Some of you may have heard of the undergraduate student who has more than a typical graduate student’s research publications, and who has graduate-level skills in terms of research and laboratory work. Mark Borris Aldonza, a fourth-year student from the Philippines and a student in the Department of Biological Sciences, is one of the grand prix winners of the 2018 Long Term Undergraduate Research Program (URP). He currently has seven research publications to his name and is on his way to pursuing a PhD program after graduation. The KAIST Herald sat down with him and listened to his story, and here we share some of his realizations from his early research experiences in his long undergraduate journey.
1. Find your niche.
Borris’ interest in research started at a very early age when he was a fourth grade student in the Philippines. He had the opportunity to present a science investigatory project, and from there on, he was hooked. “[Research was] my first ticket to be unique, to find my way out [of academic pressures] and to be happy doing things that I enjoyed, despite the fact that I was not one of the brightest students there.” Until his college years, he pursued research relentlessly and with great enthusiasm. He asserts that he knew research was something he couldn’t live without. His advice for undergraduate researchers is to get rid of self-doubt and to just experience things and see if they like it. “Without experiencing it, you will not know how it feels, and therefore you will not know if you like it or not. Let yourself be overwhelmed, because research is overwhelming and the effect of that should be to push you to try things out.”
2. Find a way.
In his undergraduate years, Borris pursued research with such enthusiasm and determination. In the Philippines, not many research labs would take an undergraduate student seriously. Borris could not accept this, and thus he volunteered as a research assistant in a university in the Philippines different from the one he was studying in. He also worked in two labs at Seoul National University (SNU), moved to KAIST after two years, and helped establish a lab from the ground up. During all these research ventures, he was a full-time undergraduate student. It is hard to balance course work, let alone add several hours of research work in a normal student’s routine. He stresses that once you find your niche, something that you love doing, there will definitely be a way to do it, be it conducting individual study, talking to professors, or doing voluntary research work.
3. Accept the fact that you are a beginner, and that there will be failures.
Everyone starts off as a beginner. To get to where he is now, Borris started with learning from scratch. He said, “What I learned is that you have to be comfortable with being ignorant. If you’re at the brink of a discovery, you’re at the edge of what is known and unknown.” He learned to be humble enough to acknowledge that he did not know everything, and that as he was learning, he would be making mistakes. Science is 98% failure. He has had experiences of crying over experiments, working in the lab for a month — even sometimes staying overnight — and still not getting good results, and many more. However, he continued to work because he had a drive to learn and discover more. “If you accept [the fact that you are a beginner], then you will be free. You are not expected to know a lot of things, so it’s okay to fail, and failure can bring you to higher heights.”
4. Learn the concept of balance.
One of Borris’ most challenging obstacles was making sacrifices — be it his time, classes, or focus — in order to do what he loved. Borris admitted that he was doing little above the bare minimum to pass his classes in SNU, and his full attention was on research. He was in a unique situation; because he was in the zone of wanting to work in research, he didn’t realize his responsibilities as a student. Upon entering KAIST, he learned the important concept of balance. He disclosed that sometimes he doesn’t attend classes to finish his experiments, but he doesn’t recommend this for undergraduate students. “Some things in the lab just cannot be controlled, so it’s either you sacrifice what you’re working on, or you sacrifice something else to work on it in that particular time. As a student, I [would] not recommend it. I recommend you to work on something that is manageable…” He said that you have to know where your priorities lie in order not to get burned out.
When asked about where his love for research stems from, Borris replied without hesitation, “It’s my identity. [There’s this] sense of belonging that I cannot find anywhere else.”