Research at Rochester: Perceptions of tobacco products and policies
When Sarah Lee first arrived at the University of Rochester, widely advertised as an R1 research university, she knew she wanted to get involved. Lee is a third-year student majoring in Data Science and Business with a minor in Music and is a research assistant in a lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC). I sat down with her to learn more about her research experience so far.
What is your research about?
I work for Dr. Dongmei Li at URMC. She works for the Tobacco Group which funds tobacco research (cigarettes, vapes, etc.). We take social media data from sources like Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, TikTok, etc. and we process it using keywords that are associated with whatever specific project we’re working on. Sometimes the projects are on specific products and sometimes they are focused on recent laws and policies concerning tobacco products. We use different types of analyses to figure out public perception on the product or legislation.
How did you find and get this research position?
There was an email sent out by the Data Science advisor, Lisa Altman, who forwarded Dr. Li’s call for research assistants. At the time, I was a sophomore in the fall semester and I really wanted to get into research because I thought I wanted to go to grad school. I was looking for any opportunity I could find to give me some experience as I hadn’t had any yet. Even though the position was pitched as for upperclassmen who had more experience in research and coding languages, I took my shot. I told her I’m really passionate about this field and am really dedicated to learning how to be good at this role – and it worked!
What is your average weekly schedule like with this research position?
This role requires around ten hours a week but sometimes it’s slower and I work five to seven hours. It just depends on where we are in a project. For example, if it’s earlier in the project and I’m trying to figure out the best way to process the data, those are my busier weeks because I often have to edit code or create new code. After I get past that stage, it’s pretty standard so it’s easier to plan out the work. It’s a 100% remote position – I’ve never been into the Med Center for the role. Every meeting we’ve had has been on Zoom. When I first joined the team we had weekly meetings but now it’s every other week.
What’s the structure like at the job?
Dr. Li is the principal investigator (PI) so she’s at every meeting. Zidian Xie is another one of my supervisors. Dr. Li handles more at the end of the project when we get to the results and write manuscripts (research papers), talking about the significance of our findings. Zidian Xie is mainly in charge of the week to week proceedings and logistics. I directly communicate with them on every call, so it’s been a very one on one situation. They want my opinions, my feedback, my input on where the project should go. They’re there to provide guidance and offer their experience but they want us to learn and grow. When I first joined the lab they paired me up with another student who also just joined. We worked on our first few projects together over the first year but once Dr. Li felt like I’d gotten comfortable and knew what I’m doing I got to work on my own projects.
How long does this position last? Where do you hope to take this research?
They hire you under the expectation that you’ll likely stay until you graduate. Once you get into research in a specific topic, it seems like the logical choice to stay and keep working on it. To be honest, I thought I was going to go to grad school and this would’ve helped me continue research and carve out a niche for myself since I started so early. However, I’ve come to realize I prefer industry (working in a corporate setting), but even so, the technical and interpersonal skills I’ve gained from this position will still be applicable in my future career.