Meaningful undergraduate research


Alicia, Olivia, Amanda, Dami, Apoorva, Kai, Stephanie, Jeremy, Stephen, and Julian

Undergrads brighten up the lab with their happy enthusiasm and growing discovery of the joy of research. Our job is to guide them in   meaningful projects where they discover something new by engaging in the full process of research. I like to think that what they learn in our lab group will be their most important educational undergrad experience. This year we have a great team of ten undergraduates in our lab group.

All too often undergrads come into a group, get assigned to a postdoc or graduate student who is an inexperienced mentor and get immersed in running gels, counting cells, scoring videotapes, growing seedlings, or any of the thousands of other tasks that actually make up research. But the joy of research does not come from these tasks, it comes from a sense of discovery, that they will find out something new. To do that, undergrads have to understand the big question. To understand the big question, they need to read the literature, know what has been done before and why they are doing what they are doing.


My co-teachers, Debbie Brock and Usman Bashir

There are other things undergraduates also need to know about doing research. They need to keep a careful lab notebook. They need to follow rules. They need to stay safe. They need to understand academic integrity. They need to be responsible to their team mates.

What is the best way of bringing undergraduates to an understanding of how to answer big questions, where their own work fits in the big picture, and also all the details of proper conduct of research? We find the answer is a weekly meeting with all the undergraduates and a team of teachers. This year we have formalized this into a one credit course, Biology 493. We meet at 17:30 so everyone can come. Because of this odd time, we provide a snack, pizza for now. How many studies have shown the power of food for enhancing positive interactions?


We asked the students to get to know each other by talking in small groups to each other person.

We have a lot to cover this semester, but we wanted to begin with big picture pleasures, not the mechanistic details. So we asked them to answer these seven questions, a bit tailored since all of them have been in the lab before, for differing amounts of time.DSC05858

  1. What were the big questions that you worked on in the lab before?
  2. Whom did you work with?
  3. What went well? What did you enjoy?
  4. What went less well? What did you not enjoy?
  5. What do you want to get out of working in the lab this year?
  6. What is your schedule for this semester?
  7. When do you plan to be in the lab?

DSC05881After they answered these questions, we gave a brief introduction, going around the room so they could give their names. And then we asked them to get to know each other. They had twenty minutes to circulate, talking to everyone, meeting them, and discovering what each other had done in the lab previously. Needless to say this was lively and fun for them. How important it is that they get to know their fellow researchers!

Below is the brief syllabus for this course. Besides attendance and work in the lab, the main requirement is that they turn in weekly writing to me of about 300 words.

Bios 493 Syllabus Fall 2013

Seminars in Advanced Biology:

Social evolution and mutualism in the amoeba Dictyostelium

Debbie Brock, Joan Strassmann, and Usman Bashir

1 credit, repeatable for credit

Offered every semester


Please obtain permission from Joan Strassmann. This course is required for all undergraduates conducting research in the Strassmann/Queller laboratories, and is available to other students on a space available basis.

Meeting time:

Wednesdays 17:30 exactly, for about an hour

Course Description:

There is a lot more to research than pipetting, or counting cells, or measuring weeds. There is more to research than PCR, excellent microscopy skills, or careful measurements of any kind. The purpose of this course is to involve undergraduates in the big questions behind their hands-on research. We will learn important safety and technical procedures. We will read and discuss articles that are foundational for the research questions we ask. We will interact with all members of the research group and hear about their projects. We will learn how to communicate our research outcomes effectively. We will have fun!


Read the assigned article, if there is one, before each class. There are weekly short writing assignments, due on Wednesday by midnight, emailed to Joan. This writing should be about your research or about articles you read and should be around 300 words. In the Spring Semester students in the group for more than a semester are required to present a poster on their research, preferably at the Spring Undergraduate Research Symposium.


Weekly attendance and completion of all written assignments is required.




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
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1 Response to Meaningful undergraduate research

  1. Pingback: Friday Recommended Reads #5 | Small Pond Science

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