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Getting involved in research for the first time can be a daunting task. Currently there are many resources on the VSA blog about research. Past posts have gone offered advice on getting involved in research, reaching out to PIs (principal investigators), and what to expect in your first year of research. Here, I give advice based on my online freshman year on how I stayed active in research without lots of experience!

Research Options + What to Expect

While the traditional route as an engineering student is working in a Viterbi lab, there are some other options you can consider:

  1. Viterbi Lab – The Traditional Route

In a normal year, students will reach out to PIs, the PI might assign them to a graduate student, and the student can go into the lab a few times a week to gain skills and work towards their research project. Given covid restrictions, many wet labs and engineering labs are yet to return in person. However, there are still many opportunities. Nearly all of the computer science labs are continuing undergraduate research, and many other labs use a hybrid model!

If there’s a lab you’re really interested in, reach out! The worst thing that happens is the lab can’t take on any more students. Additionally, establishing a connection may allow you to work with that PI in a future semester!

  1. Design Team – Hidden Research in Student Organizations

If you aren’t interested in academia, many student organizations offer research opportunities! For example, design teams mimic undergraduate research experiences. The flow of the projects is very similar to undergraduate lab research. Some students even publish their findings in a journal!

  1. Non-Viterbi Lab – Yes, You Can Look Beyond Viterbi!

If you’re having trouble finding a lab in Viterbi that piques your interest, you can always look at non-Viterbi affiliated labs. Practically every school at USC has research labs with PIs looking for undergraduates. Some options include Keck School of Medicine, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, USC School of Pharmacy, Price School of Public Policy etc. Even if you’re a Viterbi Student, lots of PIs consider you because of your diverse skillset and education. With this in mind, these labs offer more research options for those with interests outside of Viterbi.

  1. Personal Project – Get Creative

Yes, independent research is a popular choice. Luckily if you’re a computer science student, personal projects are relatively easy to start and require zero experience. You can participate in hackathons (there are quite a few USC-specific ones!) or kick off your research by finding a few projects online. Want to document your research experience? Just post it on GitHub and you can share your research with everyone!


Going to a university like USC, there is a wealth of research opportunities for all skill sets and interests. In my virtual freshman year, I was involved in the design team CAIS++, the student branch of the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, and the Charleston Chiang Lab at Keck School of Medicine. In both projects, Iexplored my interests in big data applications in genetics. In the future, I’m personally interested in diversifying my research by getting involved with some Viterbi labs. Regardless of my interests, I’m confident I’ll be able to explore my research interests.

Viterbi Voices