Wanted: A Strong Work Ethic

By Lee Anna Sherman

You might think the No. 1 quality professors seek in an undergraduate researcher is braininess. Yes, brains matter. But there’s another valued trait, perhaps less obvious but at least as important: a strong work ethic. In the labs in Oregon State’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, work ethic is often the deciding factor in hiring research assistants.

Take professor David Hamby, for example. He hired Andrew Child to work on projects funded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other agencies. “He came to me after his sophomore year asking to work with me, and now I pay him quite well because he has shown what a good work ethic he has — as well as being very bright,” says Hamby.

Assistant professor Wade Marcum echoes Hamby. “The students I seek to fill undergraduate research assistantships tend to have sound work ethics,” says Marcum, who employs undergraduate students with funding from the Idaho National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy and other sponsors. “They are very reliable and provide feedback if they run into issues that may prevent timely progress on a project.”

These highly motivated, dependable undergrads do basic science and tackle projects with advanced applications for nuclear energy technology. One of Andrew Child’s projects, for example, was to design a “graphical user interface” for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s international data center. “The interface will ultimately display critical information on radiation monitoring systems from around the world,” says Hamby.

Marcum’s projects on fluid interactions employ students to run computer simulations and conduct experiments on properties such as convection and flow in nuclear power plants. These issues are important unknowns as nuclear technology moves away from active fluid pumping toward natural or “passive” convection.

“Undergraduates who are research assistants become insightfully knowledgeable about the subject they are researching,” Marcum says. “They also gain an appreciation of the level of rigor required in a sound research study. Plus, they can better determine whether research aligns with their ambitions as they look ahead to graduate school and employment.