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.
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!