I have heard of plenty of undergraduates at universities of all types who want to just ‘do anything just to learn what research is like’ with the ultimate hope of getting a serviceable reference letter from someone who can sign their name with “, Ph.D.” after it. I have even heard PIs make the comment ‘leave that for an undergraduate’ when discussing a large amount of glassware to clean or pipetting to do. It is my experience that these menial relationships between a PI and undergraduate largely stem from a few things. First is the student perception that just cleaning glassware is worth that letter, second is the undergraduate’s feeling of self doubt (‘There is NO WAY I could do any of that scary science stuff on those posters in the hallway!”), and finally, PI’s who, unfortunately, reinforce those misconceptions held by the students. Along those lines, I think there are PI’s who do not think that undergraduates are reliable collaborators because they lack the basic scientific training necessary to complete complex research projects or that they are inherently inconsistent and unreliable with regards to showing up on time and making necessary efforts to achieve excellence. Those are not my undergraduates and I am not that PI. Here is why I will never consider the personnel in my lab unqualified for completing relevant research.
How does a student come to join my lab?
The students who have completed research in my lab have all been biology majors, but they have been on a variety of study tracks with regards to their post-undergraduate plans. I have mentored (or co-mentored in the case of 3 of these) 3 Pre-Medicine, 4 Pre-Veterinary, 4 Pre-Physical Therapy, 3 Pre-Physician Assistant, 1 Pre-Dentistry, and 5 General Biology students. The main message here is: when it comes to being a productive member of my research team, their post-undergraduate plans matter not. At this university, all students must complete a research project and present it in poster, oral presentation, and paper form before they graduate, and if they are up for the challenge of working to accomplish the additional goals that are established under my mentorship, students from all tracks are welcome.
I consistently recruit students who have an interest in a field of study somewhat related to mine (even if it is human physiology or disease), or excellent students who are enrolled in my courses that show great potential regardless of their desired professional field. Some great students will come my way having not been recruited; however, if I want to maintain an active research program addressing important questions in physiological ecology, I cannot simply sit back and wait for the good ones to drop into my lab. When I decide to recruit (I would say it is about 60% recruiting and 40% come to me), I have a solid recruiting pitch to deliver. I explain to them that when they venture out into the world of professional or graduate school interviews, everyone who is interviewed by that panel will have good GPA’s and respectable test scores. I point out that not everyone will have real research experience with grant writing, meeting presentations, and manuscript preparation under their belt, and therefore, meeting my expectations as a research mentor will make you a more competitive applicant. Most importantly, I tell them that doing research with me is difficult and time consuming and that joining my lab means never settling for going through the motions. Some people have suggested that my push for excellence for undergraduates at this early stage in their career may be an overly aggressive push. I don’t really worry about that because I’ve yet to see one fall down.
When do I accept a student into my lab?
I always encourage students to start their ‘big’ research projects early, but not too early. As discussed in a previous post, we have worked the scientific method and small independent projects into the Freshman majors curriculum, and in reality, with the chemistry, math, and biology load that comes with this major, the coursework-based research projects provide plenty of research for the first year. When they become all grown-up as Sophomores (a bit of sarcasm there), I will evaluating their potential as a fit for my lab. I think it is very important that a student have at least a full year to complete a project, but more time is better. Here is the breakdown of when each of the aforementioned team members started research with me: 48% started in their 4th semester, 23% started in their 5th semester, and 29% started in their 6th semester, which means I have never had a research student in my lab start their project as late as their senior year. There are plenty of students that put research off until then; I have just been fortunate enough to fill my lab without them.
The first thing I have students do if they are considering joining my lab is to think broadly about something that interests them in physiological ecology, ecoimmunology, or any related area. I then ask them to come up with a project idea and a basic outline of a proposal. Sometimes these can be pretty rough, and I don’t care because I want them to have the opportunity to really make it their own. If it is too far-fetched, not feasible based on our resources, or has already been done before, I work with them on coming up with new, related ideas. If I already have a larger project in the works, we may come up with a good way to have the student take a piece of that or spin something off of that larger project. After we come to an agreement on a project, I draft a research contract that defines exactly what is expected of them for that semester, including field time, lab time, time for reviewing literature, and time for writing grant proposals. For students who are already working in my lab, they get a new research contract for each semester that clearly defines our goals for completion of data collection, grant and abstract writing, presentation at meetings, and manuscript preparation. If a student is co-mentored by another professor, I ask the other professor to help me develop the set of expectations and also sign the contract. A bit of ethics in science, field and laboratory safety information is included in this contract as well. I have even gone so far as to build a ‘projected’ CV for my students to show them what they will look like on paper when they meet these goals – for those who are willing to entertain the idea of a future employer or admissions panel reading a CV, I think this is a very motivating and powerful thing.
But does it work?
I don’t want to spill my CV on this blog, or appear overly arrogant (hopefully this post is not perceived as such) so I’m omitting details of what my students and I have done in the past 3 years. My current research students (there are 7 of them) are on schedule to write 7 grant proposals, give 15 presentations at local and state meetings, and 8 presentations at national meetings over the coming calendar year. One is graduating in May 2014, but her project will be complete in December 2013, giving her plenty of time to prepare for those senior presentations and to have a manuscript submitted for review before commencement. The other 6 (and 7 again when one in waiting is brought on board) still have a minimum of 3 semesters remaining, which means many more meetings and manuscripts to go with the handful of them already in press, in review, or in the final stages of preparation.
I am sure many will read this and think that I must have to put in a TON of work to get so many undergraduates to do these things, but that is far from reality. Once we establish clearly-defined goals and go through rigorous field and lab training shortly after they join the lab, these students really do become autonomous, affording me the opportunity to mostly sit back, do some occasional quality control, offer some advice, and watch us succeed.