Undergrads in the lab!

Undergraduates bring joy to research. They are new, they are fresh, and they are easily amazed. They work well in teams. They are also much more likely to break the centrifuge, contaminate the bench, mislabel the samples, or even start fires. Which ones will become so passionate about research that they will dedicate their lives is not easy to predict.

Ben, Emily, Lily, Hannah, summer 2012 undergrads

I view bringing undergraduates into the research laboratory to be important. After all, weren’t we all once undergraduates hoping to be accepted into a research laboratory? I also want to open this opportunity to those that might not be bold enough to independently approach me or another researcher. So it is good to have advertisements up for students. It is also essential to have the permission of the grad students or postdocs who will do the hands-on mentoring before you add any students.

When we first got to Wash U, we embraced 10 undergraduates, 3 that approached us, 3 from a program for involving undergraduates in research, and 4 work study students. We ran a special seminar program for them, with snacks, Wednesdays at 5pm. Actually Boahemaa Adu-Oppong ran it, with the rest of us occasionally talking to them. Boahemaa taught them statistics, other methods, poster making, and many other things. They got to know each other.It was a very effective program, but time-consuming.

But by summer Boahemaa was busy with other things. We had 6 undergraduates, mostly new, in the laboratory. So we came up with a plan for helping them self-organize. They met weekly together, independent of any mentor. We gave them six tasks, let them divide them up. Here they are:

1. Lab business, technique quality control
2. Daily scientific question to pose of everyone and discuss.
3. Coordinate everyone writing a methods section for their project, polishing it, sharing with each other, turning in to me.
4. Coordinate everyone doing an introductory section for their project, on what their big questions and approaches are, polishing it, sharing with each other, turning in to me.
5. Poster planning organizing, producing. Think about having a rough draft of this soon after you finish the methods and intro, though results and conclusions will change
6. Organize the weekly meeting of undergrads, take brief minutes, or let me know if issues we should know about arise.

This list has a couple of important components. The daily question helped them learn more science relevant to their projects. One of our grad students, Devin Dobias, inspired this. Keeping lab and meeting organized is always important. The other three sections involve writing and communicating what they are doing. We broke this into three sections beginning with writing a methods section for a paper they might produce.

Writing a methods section was so important, we have all of our students write one at the beginning of their projects. I have been amazed at how often what I thought was a clear conversation about exact methods results in misunderstandings. The only way to be sure the students have a clear plan that matches what you think, is to have them (not you) write it down. This might as well be in a formal methods section as one would do for a paper. I try to make sure that the methods paragraphs begin with a sentence on why they are doing each step. This summer I was actually not in town at this stage, but able to help from afar. Everyone wrote several drafts. We discovered some significant miscommunications in the process.

The second thing we have the students write is an introduction to the paper their research might eventually produce. This was even harder for them than the methods section. It required making the tie to big questions. Initially their first paragraphs were about our study organism. We helped them change that to the bigger questions. Again, several drafts resulted in decent introductions.

The final product of the summer was their posters. We had lots of poster flyers from meetings up on the wall for inspiration. Thus they could clearly see the problem with too many words and the advantage to figures and brevity. After the work on methods and introductions, the posters came together much more easily. We ended with a nice poster session for the group, and a trip into town for treats.

Through all of this process, their weekly meetings together allowed them to bond, to help each other, and to learn together. Of course their grad student or postdoctoral mentors were crucial to the whole process of doing the research projects. They accounted for countless hours carefully overseeing the students, teaching them techniques, talking them through difficult theoretical issues, and seeing to it that the results were robust. This is the heart and soul of the research experience. But adding required writing and independent undergrad meetings can help with the continual challenge of understanding what has been communicated and what has not.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in the DNA lab, The joy of teaching, Undergraduates, Your lab group and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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