Thoughts from REU Alumni

Hundreds of undergraduate students have successfully completed the REU program at Blandy Experimental Farm.  They have gone on to do amazing work in a variety of careers, with most pursuing graduate degrees in the sciences.  We recently asked our alumni to look back on their experiences at Blandy and offer some thoughts and advice for future program participants.  Expand the questions below to read some of their responses.

What was the best thing about your experience as a Blandy REU?

Where to start... this was just the most fun and enriching summer. The research mentors were all enthusiastic and super knowledgeable and great mentors, during and beyond the program. The setting at Blandy is just wonderful! Great lab space and the land provided for a huge range of field work and collections. My fellow researchers were diverse, highly motivated, smart and supportive.

Being inspired by the passion of Blandy faculty.

So much! Being able to meet people from different schools, work and socialize with graduate students, participate in research, scrounge for themed potlucks, play softball, go hiking, and learning from all the mentors!

I gained invaluable research experience because I had not done any sort of undergraduate research or fieldwork outside of this program. Thus, the Blandy REU definitely aided my acceptance to a graduate program.

Taking a project from preparation and data collection to analysis and publication--so valuable learning this and getting a field research experience. Bonding with the other REU participants during the summer was also wonderful--I still keep in touch with some of these people today.

The community—the memories of our weekly dinners still pull me back to the farm. I greatly enjoyed having peers on site, all working and ultimately collaborating on our own projects. The entire Blandy staff was beyond supportive and kind.

All of it?? Honestly, there was not a single major bad thing about the Blandy REU for me. I absolutely loved spending the whole summer outside while feeling like I was contributing to important and interesting research. The fact that I made friends I’m still in close contact with today was just an added bonus.

So many things come to mind, but probably the most important was the opportunity for a glimpse into what research, graduate school, and life beyond college can look like. The hands-on and focused research experience, with guidance from a dedicated mentor, was invaluable to me and my career path. Also, it was so much fun to live in a beautiful arboretum (in the middle of nowhere), in the company of other students. On-site, I really enjoyed being involved in everyone's research projects, jogging through Gingko Grove, watching scary movies in the library, catching cool insects by the parking lot lights, playing music and games (capture the flag and cribbage!). Not far from Blandy, our group had a great time dining in nearby towns, checking out DC and the UVA campus, canoeing on the Shenandoah, roller skating, and hiking (a tiny part of) the Appalachian Trail. All of this while being paid better than in any summer job I would have gotten, and having the opportunity to spend a summer living somewhere new and beautiful with a group of amazing folks (students, mentors, and staff).

Building a lifelong professional network.

Performing a research project is a rewarding part but the people are what make it worth it! My cohort is made up of some great individuals and I am so happy to have made friends and worked with such amazing people! The Blandy mentors and staff are all fantastic to work with. Always willing to go out of their way to chat about your research project or life in general and also help you in any way they can. Blandy really is an amazing community you miss dearly when the summer ends!

How did your experience at Blandy impact you long term?

My experience was a great addition to my academic portfolio and introduction to independent research projects. It gave me the confidence to continue experimenting and researching in my field.

Made me refocus my entire undergraduate and master's on ecology and keep it always as an aspect of my day-to-day job in the workforce! It also reinforced my decision to not immediately pursue a career in academia after listening and absorbing authentic advice and experience from those at Blandy. I made some wonderful friends during my summer that I still keep up with, and I feel like I'll always have a home at Blandy. The desire to go back for a visit is always there!

It solidified my desire to attend graduate school and was an excellent experience to add to my applications.

Before Blandy, I knew very little about full-time research, what it meant to be a graduate student, or how to find and apply to graduate schools. I really don't think I would have considered graduate school an option at all without my summer at Blandy!

I learned how to troubleshoot and work/manage a long-term (really actually short-term) project. I've used these project management skills during the remainder of my time at university and in the workplace.

My experience helped me understand how to design a field research project and gave me exposure to some of the pitfalls and challenges of field research. I also have a great appreciation for the state arboretum itself--it's a beautiful place that offers so much to the public.

My Blandy REU set the groundwork for me to start my own research projects, understand how to set up these projects, what is important when presenting information to other about my projects and how to ask for help when I am in way over my head.

Leading an activity based on my research as part of the Blandy summer camp program was a formative experience that encouraged me to continue to pursue science outreach opportunities throughout graduate school and in my professional career.

Blandy improved my confidence in science tenfold. Prior to Blandy I had only ever worked on my one research project at my home institution and didn't have that much exposure to the scientific community. My Blandy experience was recent but I have noticed improvement with my scientific communication which has shown in my classes and presenting at conferences. The people at Blandy do nothing but encourage and foster personal growth, leaving you with passion and the idea that you can and will achieve great things!

I honestly wouldn't have gone to graduate school if I hadn't gone to Blandy. My REU experience gave me the experience that made me a top candidate for graduate programs and the workshops gave me all the information I needed to have a strong application.

I am not currently pursuing biology or environmental science, but I was certainly planning on it, and the Blandy REU prepared me to do so incredibly well. I loved my time at Blandy enough that I absolutely want to integrate it back into my life eventually.  Honestly, I don’t think I would have been as equipped to apply to and attend graduate school in general if I had not been a part of the Blandy REU. The research I did at Blandy helped me build a really valuable framework for how to think about research in general, how to approach independent science and collaboration, and how to make my projects uniquely my own.  Also, I go to UVA now, and that was definitely not an accidental decision!

What advice would you give prospective Blandy REU students about research at Blandy?

Make the most of your time and resources. Take your experiences and foster a network of people to help you thrive in your career. Projects are important but the people you meet will have a longer and more impactful effect on your career.

All of the projects are interesting. Even if the topics don't fall in line with your exact area of interest, you'll still gain important experience in how the whole research process works. These skills, such as science writing and time management, will be transferable to any future research you might conduct.

Try to read at least something related to the advisors topics before arriving. See their profiles and have a few options of who you would like to work with.

Have fun and ask the weird questions. The community of scientists will help you find a way to measure whatever it is—light pollution, lightning bug warning signals to plant defenses and beyond!

Do your own research well, but if you have the chance, help other students with theirs-- even if it digging holes, counting pollinators, or collecting track pads--it's working, learning, and talking with others that you will remember the most!

Be prepared to fully dive into your research project by reading, working, collecting data, etc. Blandy is bountiful in terms of field research space where you can collect data all summer long. If you've never done field research this idea may be daunting but mentors take time to make sure you fully know what you are doing and that feel confident doing so. You will also have access to a great lab space, materials, and technology to aid you in your research. Be open to anything! Blandy mentors have such a wide variety of prospective research projects for you to work with them on, some of which may or may not align to knowledge you have, interests, or previous research you've done. Personally, my Blandy research was a topic I didn't even know existed before that summer, but now it is something I love learning more about and telling others about. So being open to research that is beyond your realm of knowledge really opens you up to new experiences, personal growth, and having a unique summer experience!

Really take advantage of the opportunity, you never know how this research will impact you as a future scientist.

Come ready to work hard in the field during the day and enjoy your free time with the other REU students! Also, talk to the other students about their projects. You can even help each other out with data collection; I gained valuable exposure to multiple projects this way.

It's an experience of a lifetime. Enjoy it. I still talk about my Blandy experiences to this day with colleagues.

Come as you are and be prepared to delve full time into research and really invest yourself in the program. An REU is a great time to figure out if you like research and if so, what type of grad program and research is best for your. Come with an open mind prepared to do some soul searching about whether research is a good path for you

Don't worry too much about what mentor or study system you end up with. The big-picture skills you'll practice as an REU---making observations, thinking critically and creatively, communicating your findings, etc.--- will translate to almost any research system or career path you decide to pursue in the future.

Ask lots of questions and take advantage of all of the knowledgeable people you have around you.

Give it your all and you'll come out of it with valuable connections and experience, having a much deeper knowledge about potential career paths, and knowing yourself and your capabilities better.

It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to do! I studied bumble bees at Blandy, am currently studying galaxies, and I would love to study light pollution at some point too. I may not have stuck with the specific field I did at Blandy, but it was still an amazing learning and growing experience for me, and I still had a blast while doing it.

Be flexible when starting experiments and try not be discouraged if the experiment changes due to unforeseen complications. Connect with mentors as soon as you can to understand what the mentor wants you to achieve and ask your mentors for what you need to succeed in your research. Have fun while doing the research and reach out to your peers if you need help. This is what we all did when I was there and it helps to strengthen the bonds you have with your peers and can create long-lasting friendships. Don't be ashamed to ask for help because everyone is willing to help you finish your work and will support you until you're done. Be open to the possibility of publishing your work in a scientific journal to get the experience of this process.

What advice would you give prospective Blandy REU students about living at Blandy?

Bring a nice warm blanket for the cool nights and take some shoes you’ll take on every kind of terrain.

Take advantage of seeing the property while you're there! Appreciate the historical building you'll be living in, but definitely take time to appreciate the nature there as well. Sometimes we forget to do that when we're working in it. It may not be a 5-star hotel stay, but that's what makes it fun. Build good camaraderie with your REU group and set rules that everyone agrees on to make the living situation stress-free and fun. Help each other when you can, whether it's work-related or not. Also, you're not that far away from some other cool places and towns if you need to get away on a weekend.

Bring a sealed container to store pantry snacks in your bedroom without attracting bugs, but also be prepared to deal with bugs (and occasionally birds) inside.

It's truly a beautiful place to spend the summer. Living at Blandy, you obviously get to focus on field research, but it is honestly so much fun to spend your summer at Blandy, and you will build strong new friendships.

Comfy socks go a long way. Get ready to cook and eat some seriously good food. And please, sleep outside at least once!

Embrace the simplicity and the moment-- we had multiple power outages in hot summers without A/C (the one while we were trying to finish our final papers made for sharing outlets by candlelight!) and I was the only local one with a car, so we made our own fun for the summer in quarters and really became a community by staying local and building friendships on the grounds, rather than trying to stay fully connected to our lives outside Blandy.

Take time to enjoy the vastness of the arboretum because there is SO much to explore! Be sure to also spend time with the other REU's as well, whether that be helping out with each other's projects, exploring the surrounding area, or hanging out. It is such a benefit to live and work in the same place. Plus you are sharing spaces and living with your new friends so it is really a fun experience. Blandy is truly an amazing place to spend the summer living and working!

Summer in Virginia can be humid. Ticks abound. The nights are ideal weather for outdoor hangouts. The Blandy grounds are absolutely beautiful, definitely explore them as much as you can.

Enjoy!! And get to know your fellow researcher - they will likely be long-term friends and potentially colleagues! Host potlucks with your fellow researchers, help with their data collection, learn about their previous research experiences, go on hikes with them, talk about grad school applications, review each other's research proposals... soak it all in and learn as much from your fellow researchers as possible!

It's way more fun when you and the rest of the REU students hang out together. Game nights, movie nights, it really becomes a second home for the summer, if you are open to it.

Spend some time cooking and you’ll make friends with your cohort in the kitchen. Remember to take time to chill, walk around in the grass, run around in a summer thunderstorm, and sit down on a warm rock to read a novel. Also, go to dinosaurland at least once and don’t forget mosquito repellant so you can go marvel at the fireflies without getting too bitten up

Hang out with peers in the corridors outside dorm rooms, in the dining area, in the kitchen, or any other place around Blandy and get to know the grad students working at Blandy as well. Go out to eat every now and then and cook together to bond with peers. Always have your flashlight when walking around at night to be able to see. 

Anything else you'd like to share about your experience at Blandy?

Blandy has a long-standing track record of supporting BIPOC students. Not all REUs and organizations can say this, and some say it without action. I strongly admire this about Blandy and it really speaks to "the quiet way" of the farm and the fabulous research and educational programs that come from it.

I had an absolute blast at Blandy. I've been able to be an REU mentor at my graduate institution and the resources, housing, and environment that Blandy provides really makes a top-tier REU program compared to others around the country.

I still have such fun memories of this summer and consider it an important experience that influenced me to choose an academic career conducting research.

Blandy was really transformative for me and I think back on that summer so very fondly. Fantastic program, and I'm just so lucky to have been there!

Blandy was the best summer of my undergraduate career. I made so many friends, I was immersed in so many different science projects, and I got to work with so many people at different stages of their science careers, it was just an overall amazing experience.

I sure did get more comfortable with bugs! Learning that I was accidentally at Blandy during a cicada year was TERRIFYING to my city-raised constitution, but everything was completely fine and now I’m the guy in my house who is called upon on to gently bring any bugs outside.