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Demystifying Undergrad Research

I’ll start off by saying this--we’ve all gotta start somewhere. Think of the professor you most respect or the post-doc/graduate student you’re working with in lab. Think of all the papers they published or how they seem to always know what questions to ask or what experiment to run. I promise you, there was a point where even they had started out with absolutely ZERO research experience and might have even struggled with the same techniques you’re struggling with now.

I learned some of the most important skills for my PhD during my time as an undergraduate researcher--how to read scientific literature, what controls to set up, how to organize my lab notebook, how to cope with experimental failures (okay, I admit I’m still working on this last one). In lab I recently found myself as the graduate mentor for two undergraduate mentees, something I had never done before. My PI prioritizes undergraduate mentorship, and that is one of the reasons why I was drawn to her lab, but suddenly being responsible for 2 undergrads cold turkey was definitely a lot to take in! Fortunately, I love mentoring, and the undergrads I work with are awesome. Though it is my first time mentoring undergrads, I feel like we can benefit each other and that we are patient with one another. Mentoring undergrads has made me so much more aware of how far I’ve come since first starting out research. It’s satisfying to be able to explain a concept or a new technique to someone and sense that I am passing on the wisdom that I wish I had known back when I was an undergrad. I catch myself thinking often “hmm I guess I do know some things afterall.” This whole experience has been both humbling and empowering, and I am truly thankful to be working with such awesome people!

Me with one of my undergrad mentees after a long day of tissue extractions

I’m part of my grad program’s DEI Committee, and we recently hosted our first undergraduate research panel. We invited undergrad panelists who spoke about their experiences starting research and answered audience questions. That event made me realize that there are SO MANY undergrads excited to join a research group, but had no idea where to even start! I had forgotten that there was a point where I also asked questions about things that are second nature to me now--like how to contact a PI or whether you can even work in a lab as an undergrad. Hello!? They don’t teach you this in school! I know that some of our readers are undergrads and realized that this is a great platform to demystify some things about undergrad research. We are here to help you, dear reader! The topic of undergrad research will be a new series on our blog so please keep your eyes open for future installments :)

Me with my undergrad mentees! I continue to learn so much as a mentor!

Common myths about undergrad research

1. You need prior research experience.

I think this is one of the most pervasive myths preventing undergrads from starting research. Most people start researching with little to no experience. Again, we’ve all gotta start somewhere and learn on the job. Some specific projects may require some prereqs (this is something you should talk to the professor about), but it’s more likely that a professor will have an opening in their lab for those with no experience at all. Even with no prior research experience, you can show dedication, willingness to learn, and attentiveness, which is what’s important to being a scientist!

2. If I don’t hear back from a professor, that means I didn’t get the position.

I don’t know about you, but I have a habit of taking things way too personally sometimes. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear back! Professors are really busy people--and oftentimes your email can get buried. Reach back out to them after 2 weeks if you haven’t heard back by then. If you haven’t heard back for awhile you could also try reaching out to the graduate students in the lab as they are more accessible than the professor.

3. It’s better to reach out to a professor as an upperclassmen.

There’s no right time to reach out to a professor. If your coursework allows you to spare some time to take on research, then power to you! If you find research that piques your interest, go ahead and reach out to the professor. Similar to the first myth, you don’t need prior research experience to get started.

4. Students should choose research in their major.

Don’t limit your research to just your major. The beauty of interdisciplinary and collaborative work is that it draws from people’s various backgrounds and strengths. Much of science relies on multiple perspectives and research approaches, so it’s a benefit to have a different major than other lab members. Find something that interests you and don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone! I personally know a student who majored in Asian American studies and did research in an experimental biology lab, totally different from their major!

5. You can’t get compensated for research.

Compensation comes in many forms! While you might not be compensated monetarily, you can get academic credit and also gain valuable opportunities such as presenting at a conference, publishing a paper, getting a letter of rec, or simply networking with the PI and grad students in your lab. That being said, if you ARE looking for monetary compensation universities usually have fellowship or REU opportunities available for undergrads to fund their research. Check in with your school’s Research Program or check in with your advisor to hear about these opportunities.

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