Water-related problems allow for rapid and deep engagement of undergraduate researchers because they are in ready supply in nearly every community, because there usually exist dimensions that are simple enough for undergraduates to make meaningful contributions, and because they are frequently relevant to society, ecosystems, theoretical knowledge, and/or management applications. These many attributes attract students to projects, but what keeps students involved long enough to lead to substantive results, technical learning, and personal growth? In this poster presentation, the contrasting viewpoints of two students and their professor are presented and compared while each is at the beginning of summer research. One student created her own international, field-based, geochemistry project at the end of her second year. The other signed on to a local, theoretical, environmental remediation project at the end of her third year, and this followed a summer research experience the previous year that influenced her thinking about this year’s project. The professor is the faculty advisor for both and has supervised numerous undergraduate research projects over the last decade while at both large research institutions as well as his present undergraduate-only liberal arts college.
This analysis illustrates the widely varying perspectives of different individuals at the outset of the projects. We assert that, with basic logistics like housing, lab space, and wages in place, the emotional context of undergraduate research projects can exert a major influence over projects’ success. Key factors that determine whether students will thrive are the: balance of the project relative to the other demands of an undergraduate lifestyle; emotional fortitude by the student to remain with a project when work becomes tedious or confusing; consistent technical, emotional, and social support from the professor; and ability of the professor to size – and resize – the project appropriate to fit (changing) degrees of student enthusiasm. Open questions related to the balance of the enthusiasm that makes undergraduate research uniquely satisfying and the logistical constraints that influence their scope and expectations are explored.