Recently we’ve been working in the lab to push our undergraduate researchers to get the most out their experience, and it’s got me thinking about undergraduate research as a whole.

I doubt that most undergraduate science majors even realize that working in a research lab is an option. For those that do seek out the experience, most don’t realize the full spectrum of possibilities offered by such a position. Here I’ll expand on the potential for undergraduate research opportunities and share my own transformational experiences. (I’ll also say “undergraduate research” way too many times, but I can’t bring myself to abbreviate it as UR)

Let’s start with the ‘Why’. Participating in undergraduate research, even at the most basic level, has a host of benefits for a science major. First and foremost it pads your CV/resume, and the extended contact with the lab’s Professor often provides one of the strongest academic letters of recommendation upon completion of a bachelor’s degree. When students first approach us in the lab, this is usually their goal.

Confident in your microscopy skills? Many of your peers aren’t.

Just reaching that goal, however, provides additional benefits. Extensive hands-on time in the lab provides the opportunity to become intimately familiar with laboratory techniques and equipment they may otherwise miss. For instance, in many research labs microscopy and pipetting are common tasks, but in the course of undergraduate science labs, the student may only have experience with these important tools a handful of times. Competence with additional skillsets not only looks great to prospective employers, but also provides a big confidence boost the next time their career presents them with these tools.

What I’ve described thus far is just the basic, bare minimum undergraduate research experience. For those interested in a career in research, or one involving graduate school, this experience can offer so much more.

For the trade of a small time commitment, the undergraduate student can likely join the lab’s weekly meetings. This not only gives the student more face-time with the professor, but offers a glimpse into the world of graduate school. Here they learn how to disseminate scientific papers, how experiments are planned and presented to a group, and get a glimpse of the expectations placed on graduate students in the sciences.

But wait! There’s more…

Once a student is familiar with the lab’s study system, they can work with their graduate student mentor to conduct independent research. This often involves testing a research question within the confines of an already existing project, alleviating the need for additional funding sources. In my opinion, those students wanting to get the most from the experience should be aiming for these types of independent research projects.

These projects often culminate in a poster presentation and can even lead to publications. In my own undergraduate research experience, in addition to presenting my research at a national conference, I left the lab acknowledged on one paper, and a co-author on three additional papers. I even had the opportunity to write my own first-author publication, but as a very timid undergraduate and declined to write-up my own research.

By the time I went looking for research jobs, and eventually graduate school, I was both more qualified and more confident than my peers. My confidence and qualifications were almost entirely due to my undergraduate experience where I learned multiple laboratory techniques, became a published scientist, gained a number of important references, and perhaps most importantly, learned to effectively disseminate scientific papers.

So if you’re considering getting involved, do it! Reach out to your favorite TA, or find a professor on campus whose research you’re interested in. Once you’re in the lab, push to do more. Learn as much as you can, ask questions, and find a research question you can independently explore. The rewards are most certainly worth it!

A few days ago we had our bi-annual IACUC inspection. Lab inspections, while often frustrating for researchers, are a necessary component to running a lab safely. IACUC, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, is responsible for making sure we’re housing and treating the animals in our lab appropriately.

IMG_1441 (2)
Are you little dudes satisfied with your accommodations?

The IACUC inspection is just one of the many inspections our lab is subject to each year. Academic labs are inspected for chemical storage and labeling compliance, safety, emergency preparedness, and inventories of lab equipment which are considered property of the university.

These inspections often frustrate researchers as compliance often means spending money (which as a rule, is always tight), changing established laboratory routines, and sometimes putting in extra work for absolutely no benefit.

For example, in our last two inspections, to comply with our inspector’s recommendations we needed to purchase new chairs, replace displayed information with slightly different displayed information, and clean the smudged glass of a terrarium so that the frog inside could have a better view of the lab.

Some of these tasks are clearly silly, for instance we cover the exterior of the terrariums so that the animals aren’t stressed seeing humans moving around nearby. Clearly, the smudges on the glass are of no concern to any human or animal in the lab. But the frustration I’m displaying isn’t the only side of the story.

These inspections are important, extremely important. We may not want to change our habits, or spend money when it’s not absolutely necessary, but without the inspections we may never address some issues, or even realize an issue is present.

Now that's a lab chair!
Now that’s a lab chair!

Let’s consider another of the above examples, the requirement that we purchase new chairs. Our old chairs still work, they aren’t especially uncomfortable, so what’s the issue? The chairs had fabric seats. That doesn’t sound like a big deal on the surface, and it may be that it’s never caused an issue in the lab’s 35 years, so what’s the deal? If a dangerous chemical is dropped or spilled on the fabric, there is no way to remove it, and when it dries, there is no easy way to detect it. The solution, plastic chairs which can easily be wiped clean.

Come to think of it, who knows what’s been spilled on those chairs in 35 years? I could be sitting on irritants or carcinogens!

The moral of the story? As much as the many annual inspections may annoy or frustrate laboratory researchers, they are necessary. They remind us that we need to do the best job we can, not just when doing science, but when considering safety, health, and the potential for emergency situations.

…and tomorrow my new chairs arrive!

Last summer our lab struggled with inconsistent results from our strain of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd)… and… Perhaps I’d better back up a bit.

Amphibian populations have been declining globally, faster than any other vertebrate taxa on the planet. One of the agents believed to be responsible is the fungal pathogen Bd. This pathogen alone doesn’t explain the magnitude of the population declines observed, but it is likely an important part of the story.

To that end, our lab examines Bd in combination with other factors in search of an effect that could explain what we’re observing in nature.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way; last summer we struggled with inconsistent results from our lab strains of Bd. In planning the work for this spring and summer, we decided to run a preliminary trial of our Bd strain.

I ran a very small trial using western toads, a species highly susceptible to Bd, and after one week I have my answer. Our lab strain has become avirulent after ~9 generations in the lab. Had we not caught this before the our experimental season, we’d have experienced wonky experimental results lab wide.

Time to buy a fresh Bd isolate…


Hello and welcome! Thanks for checking out my Blog!

I’m a graduate student at Oregon State University working in Dr. Andrew Blaustein’s amphibian disease ecology lab. My research focuses on the many complexities in interactions between disease, the environment, and the immune system; but that won’t be the focus of this blog.

I’m ready to get my feet wet with this blog… Literally!

I hope to provide a log of both the experience of being an amphibian disease scientist, as well as a log of how the actual research is carried out. I may also, from time to time, post cute photos of my dog Leia, because I can’t help myself.

Thanks for joining me!