As an Iowa State University Honors student, I was eligible to take part in a research-oriented mentorship program for credit during my second college semester. With only a handful of introductory classes under my belt and no understanding of what academic research actually entailed, I wasn't sure how I would be of any use to the professor I would be paired with. Regardless, I chose to enroll in the program for one simple reason: I knew that taking advantage of opportunities like this whenever I could would help me stand out when I competed for internships and jobs in the future. So I signed up and was paired with Computer Science professor Dr. Alexander Stoytchev for a robotics project.
I met with Dr. Stoytchev at the end of my first semester. He explained how developmental robotics is an interdisciplinary field of study that blends knowledge from robotics, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and psychology to create intelligent robots. Because I had no prior experience with robotics, Dr. Stoytchev suggested a couple books for me to read over Christmas break and recommended that I sign up for the computer programming class he would be teaching in the spring semester. So I went home over break, signed up for his class, and began the recommended readings.
When I returned after Christmas break, I was assigned the fun and educational task of using a Lego Mindstorm robot kit to build a simple autonomous robot. I set up shop in the ISU Robotics Club Lab and started showing up three times a week to work on the robot. (Yes, it's as geeky as it sounds. That's the beauty of college you can find many other people who share your interests. There are clubs for nearly everything.) Over the course of the semester and with the help of others in the lab, I built and programmed a mobile robot to autonomously navigate a maze. At the end of the semester I gave a presentation of my work to the ISU Robotics Club, wrote a short summary about my experience for the Honors program, and traveled back to Dysart for robot show-and-tell with a class of third graders. Dr. Stoytchev was pleased with my progress and gave me a passing grade for the mentorship program. In addition, he let me know that he was willing to be a personal reference for me in the future.
If you know about FIRST Lego League, you are aware that students ages 9-16 build robots using the Lego Mindstorm kit. So you might be wondering why a semester of college spent doing something that middle school students can do is worth writing home about. In short, it was an invaluable experience for me because I learned an important lesson: hard work plus ambition creates opportunities.
We small town folk pride ourselves on our work ethic. We don't have fast food restaurants, so our high schoolers make money detasseling in the hot summer sun instead of working a cash register in an air-conditioned building. Our farm kids wake up before dawn to do chores. Our football players play both offense and defense. We know hard work.
This small town work ethic coupled with ambition opened the doors to future opportunities for me. I enjoyed Dr. Stoytchev's computer programming class so much that I switched to computer engineering and took more programming courses during the following semesters. With technical skills obtained through my classes, a successful freshman honors research experience, and a reference from a professor, I was able to land an internship with Rockwell Collins after my sophomore year at ISU.
To the students reading this, I encourage you to be intentional about exercising your work ethic in whatever you pursue after high school. Maybe you've always wanted to be a marine biologist. Students growing up in coastal cities may have had the opportunity to work for a marine biologist in high school, but growing up in land-locked Iowa doesn't disqualify you from being a great marine biologist (or whatever your interest might be). Dream big, seek out opportunities, and let your small town work ethic shine in order to reach your goals. Who knows, someday you could be a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, spending your Saturdays on the beach reading a Marine Microbiology textbook.
If you have questions or comments, Austin wants to hear them! You can write to him at