Finding a research topic

JULY 1ST, 2023 AT 4:55 AM

Wilson Wong is a faculty member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University (BU) and a core member of the BU Biological Design Center. His lab is focused on developing synthetic biology tools in mammalian systems for cell-based therapy. He received his B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from UC Berkeley and Ph.D. degree in Chemical Engineering from UCLA with Dr. James Liao. He was an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Scholar at UCSF with Dr. Wendell Lim (primary advisor) and Dr. Arthur Weiss.

How do you want to make a difference in this world?


I like to challenge my students with this question. This question, I admit, is a very tough question. Thinking back to when I was an undergraduate student, I wouldn’t be able to answer this question. It is easy to be overwhelmed with choices. Therefore, to decide on a research area to pursue, it is important to start off with some homework and an open mind.


The simplest way to be informed about different research areas is to read and talk to different people. Do your homework on the topic that you are interested in. What follows are some helpful tips for students at the start of their scientific journey.


Tangible Tips

  • Look online at lab websites and read review papers. If you are an undergraduate student and want to engage in a particular research area, start by going to lab websites of various faculty members near you and read their research papers. Review articles written by these labs are particularly helpful. 

  • After you’ve done your homework, you can contact the labs that you are interested via email. In the email, state that you have read their research articles and why you are interested in their work. The more thoughtful the email, the more likely you will receive a positive response.

  • Aim to acquire skills. Sometimes, a research topic may seem to be very different than what you are interested in. However, the techniques that you will learn could be useful in other research areas. Therefore, you may want to pursue something where you can obtain useful skills, even though it is not an area that you are the most familiar with. Also, science changes rapidly, but the fundamental process of doing good science remains the same. Just be open minded and learn as much as possible, especially at the beginning of your research career. The more skills you have, both in technical and “soft” skills (e.g., project and time management, communication, creativity), the more opportunities will be available. Chance favors the prepared mind.



Lastly, I do want to share my opinion about failure and research. Engaging in scientific research can be very rewarding. However, it is also very different than classes and can be very frustrating. In classes, answers are usually available for exams and homework questions. In research, often times no one knows the answer to the question that we are asking. It is our job to find the answer and provide evidence to convince ourselves and others that our answer is correct. Finally, sometimes our project is going to be stuck at a dead end (maybe the initial assumption was wrong or the tool that we are using is not suitable for the project) and we will have to give up and pursue something else. No one is keeping tabs on how much we failed. Fail fast, so you can succeed sooner.


Useful Resources

This article explores a framework for considering the evolution of scientific disciplines and the role of scientists at each of these stages – it may help you decide your scientific career path as you consider your scientific curiosities.

"Four stages of a scientific discipline; four types of scientist" by Alexander Shneider


Professor Robert Langer from MIT is one of the most successful bioengineers in the world. This article discusses some of his early struggles and how he eventually overcame them.

Engineer of Change” by Tracy Vence


These are a collection of interesting podcasts, talks, and videos that may help inspire your scientific trajectory.


These are a number of interesting books written by scientists, capturing their passion and thoughts for their work. They are a great resource to get inspired or become curious.

  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • An Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
  • The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  • The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas

Comments and questions

Create an account or sign in to leave your thoughts or ask a question.

No comments were found.