Yes, lemurs. As in the little primates. Like Zoboomafoo. I was in North Carolina this weekend, going with my wife to her 20-year law school reunion at Duke University, and we got to go visit the Duke Lemur Center. The Lemur Center has the largest population of lemurs outside of Madagascar, including many who roam freely in the forest around the center. A tour guide explained that the center was established in the 1960s when two professors--one at Duke and one at Yale--wanted to combine their research. In order to do so, Duke not only had to hire the Yale professor, but also make room for his research primate collection. And now, for 50 years, Duke is apparently the top place for research on lemurs.
On the flight back, I was thinking about the cool research that goes on at universities and remembered another flight. Once, on a plane to New York, I listened in on a conversation between two men in the row behind me. One was a professor at Rice who did work at the Large Hadron Collider. He talked about how CERN built the atom smasher, and then researchers from around the world had their own equipment attached for sensing whatever their research was focused on. (The professor I eavesdropped on is probably pictured here.)
It's not just science professors, either. I've known Art History professors who lead archaeological digs, an English professor who reviews books, poems, and paintings for the Wall Street Journal, and a math professor whose online videos have been viewed by at least hundreds of thousands.
I'm bringing this up because, it being Spring, I'm thinking a lot about the transition from high school to college. We tend to think about college as classes, dorms, and parties, but many of your professors will be so much more than what they do in the classroom. (High school teachers can be vastly interesting too, of course, but their work rarely takes them outside the school as often as professors work away from campus.) To work alongside your professors in their hands-on research usually requires you to be a graduate student. However, there are plenty of opportunities for students to work with or for professors, not just sit in their classrooms. And even if your on-campus job doesn't involve being a research assistant, be on the look-out for really interesting professors who have a lot more to teach than just what's on the syllabus.
To be a great college student, you're going to need a mentor. Someone who can give you honest feedback, recommend classes and projects, and answer difficult questions about your path beyond college. A mentor doesn't have to be a professor, but it might be. And getting to know what they research, what kinds of articles and books they've published, and how their work affects the world outside the classroom, might be a great way to find the right mentor. When you have a good professor--and you will--don't neglect to learn more about them and see if they may end up being a mentor for you.
You may even wind up working with cute-but-vicious lemurs in the woods of North Carolina.
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