Setting up a research experience for undergrads

May 22 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers], Uncategorized

There are a lot of ways that undergraduates can fit into active research programs, and no, I'm not talking about all the different glassware they can wash. We tend to have at least one or two undergrad students in the lab during the academic year and many of them have contributed significantly to projects that are now being prepared for publication with them as authors.

Academic year UGs often have 3-12 hours a week they can contribute, depending on their schedule, which can be a bit of a challenge when planning experiments or tasks for them to complete. Some work their hours and go, whereas others find more of a home base in the lab - staying to do homework or study while completing their to do list. I have had tremendous success with students recruited prior to starting their junior year, but this has its own challenges that I won't get into today.

The projects that can be most helpful for the lab and the student are actually work done during the summer. Perhaps you have a site REU, fellowship mechanism or got an REU supplement to an existing grant and now you are faced with finding 400 hours or work for an inexperienced student. One of these can be daunting, but for a variety of unusual reasons, my lab ended up with four such students this summer.

With 1600 hours of time to fill for students who, for the most part are getting their first glimpse of life in the lab, it was critical that I work out a series of projects that are going to be useful but compact. Ten weeks is both a long and short period of time.

I talked to each of the people in my lab and asked them to think about projects they don't have time to deal with, but would be helpful for their work. Most of them had a couple of ideas, which we sat down to work out the feasibility of. Important questions were: 1) Is it something that can be easily taught? 2) Something that one can work on as the learn the bigger context? 3) Involve significant manual work that the lab trainee didn't have time to do, and 4) Have a defined start and end that could be met in our time frame?

The last point might be the most important for these summer projects. With academic year undergrads I often leave things open-ended and let the lab trainees guide them. For summer students it is possible (or even probable) that the ten weeks you have them are the only ten weeks they will be in the lab. I like to ensure that they have their own story to tell at the end - something they feel some ownership over. That may seem simple, but rarely is.

So today we unleash the hordes in the lab and we'll see how it all ends up in ten weeks.

15 responses so far

  • anon says:

    I find students often work best in pairs. They help each other figure things out before they come ask for help (which they don't really need, they're just uncertain), take turns doing labor intensive stuff, talk about the project out loud which helps understanding immensely, motivate each other to work hard, console each other when things don't work, are less afraid to ask questions. This also has the advantage of only needing half the number of projects, and improves the likelihood that something will get done in a shorter time frame and lets the students experience success and the range of stages a project goes through from concept to poster creation.

  • FSGrad says:

    Good luck. My students start next week, and thank goodness I only need to come up with 20 hrs/week of things to do. I can't even imagine 160 hrs/week.

  • I always find it very hard to come up with good projects for undergrads. I've supervised a couple of students as both a grad student and as a post-doc and I guess I have to let go of the idea that I want to show them how much fun it is to work in a lab. I will often turn into one of those TV chefs, and have all the boring stuff already prepared for them so they only have to take the baked cake out of the oven so to speak. And that means that I have to come in early in the morning to prep an experiment. Or I will think of something that is a crucial experiment and in the end I end up running half the experiment because I don't want them to mess up. Now I have a summer student running a self-admin experiment, which seems to work well, although he does have a lot of time when there's not a lot to do when the animals are running. So I guess he learns that working in a lab also involves a lot of waiting around...

  • anon says:

    I love undergrads. I would give them projects that no grad student in her right mind would even consider, mostly because it's too risky. We have all ended up learning a lot from these undergrad-conducted experiments - what mistakes to avoid, and what would actually be worth pursuing. Yes, I use the students as guinea pigs, but we all benefit from it. They benefit from the experience, and potential publication if the project takes off, and the lab also benefits from the new information gained from the data. win win!

  • Ragamuffin says:

    I am finishing my first year as a grad student, and have been feeling guilty about pawning my undergrad off on the technicians the last few weeks. She has been quite helpful, but hasn't been doing much on her own project yet. Thank goodness for summer.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    There is no question that UGs get a highly variable experience, depending on project and lab.

    InBabyAttachMode, I would avoid the shortcuts when training. I think that gives them an unreasonable expectation. The sooner they learn that a lot of lab work is repetitive grunt work, the better. The key is to make sure they see the forest for the trees sometimes so that they don't think all they are doing is grunt work for the sake of it.

  • In large labs like my own, the problem with undergrads is that there is a low compound probability of a successful experience: likelihood the undergrad is motivated to learn, capable of understanding what she is doing, and hard-working enough to make progress x likelihood that the post-doc who is mentoring the undergrad is motivated to mentor, capable of communicating effectively, and willing to put in the time required. While I feel bad about it--because my own undergraduate research experience is why I am a scientist today--I have made the decision that since I cannot put in the time myself to directly oversee the participation of undergrads in my lab, we will only bring in undergraduates under *very* selective circumstances.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I've taken a more active role this year and tried to frame the questions in a way that should really help each grad student/postdoc in their work, making them (hopefully) more motivated to put some time in with the UGs. We'll see if it works.

  • Isabel says:

    Physioprof, based on various comments you have made lately you seem to have a pretty surprisingly negative view of your trainees. Where are all these lazy, incompetent and unmotivated people coming from? I thought you were at a top medical school and that academia was intensely competitive. Yet you seem stuck with all these losers. Or are they unhappy for other reasons?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    My first year as an assistant prof, I taught my first iteration of my ichthyology course. A couple of students from the course wanted to do more. We did a survey of the fishes of Piasa Creek, an unstudied small drainage on the Illinois side between the mouths of the Illinois and Missouri Rivers. Later a couple of interested students did a study of the food habits of the northern studfish in Missouri. Both studies were published in local journals.

    One of the students in the Piasa Creek study has taken up wood carving. He makes beautifully done, scientifically accurate miniature dioramas of fish in streams. There is now a Piasa Creek Restoration Commission, most pleased to have detailed information of how the creek was in 1967.

  • It's no secret that I love to have a minion hoard. For the summer-only students, I've found that highly repetitive projects rock. The "we saw a cool thing with a wild type protein and now we want to know what happens with a couple of mutant proteins" gig is a great one. Materials are not-dangerous and inexpensive and this approach allows a student to refine a technique while making a contribution. I stage things to make it efficient; while the student does the DNA work to make mutants, I have them make the majority of their mistakes on the wild type version. This way they're ready to do real work on their own mutants. This sort of work also has a lot of quick (albeit small) successes right up front.

    I bestow my crazy high risk projects on the lucky undergrads that stick with me through a highly repetitive project phase.

  • gerty-z says:

    I've had similar experiences as CPP, though my lab is not that big yet. Undergrads are a lot of work, and right now all of the students and postdocs in my lab are really excited about their OWN work. This reduces motivation to take the time for an undergrad, especially if you don't know they are motivated x hard-working x capable.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Gerty, that's why we thought specifically about projects that the students and postdocs didn't have time for, but would help them. These are all side things that could be folded in if they generate interesting results. That alone seems to have the lab peeps motivated enough.

  • Undergrads are a lot of work, and right now all of the students and postdocs in my lab are really excited about their OWN work. This reduces motivation to take the time for an undergrad, especially if you don't know they are motivated x hard-working x capable.

    Yeah. This is the point. Trainees in my lab are highly effective and motivated to pursue their own projects, and rightly so, as that is what matters for their scientific careers. Only a very few of them are highly effective and motivated to mentor an undergrad, and it is difficult to identify which ones those are a priori.

  • Isabel says:

    "Trainees in my lab are highly effective and motivated to pursue their own projects, and rightly so, as that is what matters for their scientific careers. "

    I must admit I don't understand how you all run your labs. I would assume that these "highly effective and motivated " grad students and postdocs would have aspects of their research that could be done by undergrads, and that they would be very motivated to train them because of this benefit; and that mentoring is another skill that a PI should be actively encouraging. Most grad students I know mentor undergrads, although being asked to mentor someone on someone elses' project would be weird, and I would assume they don't have time for this and "lack of motivation to mentor" would be a rational response. It sounds like your trainees are more like employees of the PI.

    In the labs I'm familiar with grad students are never "assigned" things like this. Also most (though I agree there are exceptions) undergrads seem to work out really well, I mean if they are there in the first place they are obviously motivated, and if they've made it this far they are probably hard-working and capable. Also in most labs in my department grads TA a lot, so we get to know many undergrads ahead of time.

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