Why should you become involved in undergraduate research?
As undergraduate students, we can forget the fact that most of our professors do not spend the majority of their time teaching undergraduate classes. A large research university like UC Davis uses a huge portion of its human resources and facilities to carry out “original research”. This involves professors and their research teams battling everyday to advance knowledge in their field by carrying out research in the various labs dotted around campus.
As an undergraduate, it’s wise to tap into this exciting world, in order to make the most of your educational experience. Working as an undergraduate assistant in a laboratory can expand your intellectual horizons and challenge you beyond any class coursework- it is like powerlifting for the intellect. You will learn how to read and analyze peer reviewed research articles. You will learn advanced technical skills that will supplement knowledge in upper division biology classes and open up career opportunities. For example, gaining lab skills can make you a much more competitive applicant for becoming a lab technician or gaining an internship at a biotechnology company right after graduation (e.g. Genentech). Additionally clinical research can provide you with patient contact and strengthen healthcare school applications.
Above all, it can be difficult to get to know your professors at a large research university like UC Davis. Therefore, sitting at a lab bench for 3 hours every Monday morning with your graduate student advisor or professor will offer you an unparalleled opportunity to get to know them. If you develop a genuine, professional relationship with your professor, they can guide you towards incredible opportunities, grants/ scholarships and provide perspectives on careers both inside and outside of academia. They are also in an excellent position to provide you with a detailed, supportive letter of recommendation for graduate school.
Although the rewards can be great, it is worth noting that research is challenging and requires a significant time commitment of 6-12 hours per week. As with any extracurricular activity, you should periodically assess whether research is something you truly enjoy, and if the benefits outweigh the costs for your particular situation.
How to become involved in undergraduate research
Ideally, you should become involved with research at end of your freshman year or the beginning of your sophomore year. This will give you 2-3 years to learn the skills necessary to make a genuine impact in your department. However, your junior year can also be an excellent time to become involved in a lab, as some professors prefer students with certain advanced science classes under their belt.
Here are the general steps required to become an undergraduate research assistant:
- First, make a list of fields that you are interested in (e.g. genetics, physiology, psychology, neurology). Contact and meet with an appropriate faculty advisor for overall advice on campus research opportunities by visiting: http://basc.ucdavis.edu/advising/faculty-advisers.html
- Visit lab websites. Google search UC Davis department websites and make a list of labs/ professors to contact. Paid and unpaid research assistant opportunities will also be advertised through the bismajors listserv and on Aggie Job Link. Undergraduate assistant positions are usually unpaid, but some can be paid or eventually develop into paid positions. You may also meet professors requiring lab assistants in BIS 005, a research course required for all BIS majors.
- When visiting the lab website, try to assess the environment to predict what sort of learning experience you will receive. For example, in a very large lab, you may not have opportunities to talk with the PI (main professor) or learn skills beyond basic lab maintenance work. Also, if the lab uses animal models, you should consider whether you would be comfortable handling or even euthanizing the given animal. If the lab is involved with clinical research, you should consider whether you would enjoy working with patients, as well as the ethical implications.
- Read 1 to 3 research articles written by the professor of your lab of interest. Send a professional and succinct email to the professor expressing your interest, mention something specific about their research that interests you and ask if there are any openings for research volunteers. Your professor may request a more formal interview and your resume, to assess your suitability for the lab. You should also use interviews to assess whether the professor or graduate mentor will provide a learning environment that will be useful to you.
- Do not be discouraged if there is no space for you in a particular lab. You may need to apply to 10-50 labs before you receive a positive response.
- During your first year of working on a research project, do not expect anything but go out of your way to be as helpful as possible. Get to work on time everyday and be prepared to perform basic tasks with enthusiasm. Once you have proven your reliability and gained some technical expertise, slowly increase your involvement by offering to take on more duties. As you are assigned important work, go the extra mile to complete these tasks to the highest standards possible. Keep an eye out for undergraduate summer internships or ask your graduate mentor or professor if they know of such opportunities. Approaching your work with positivity and diligence will maximize the benefits you will receive from any research experience.
- UC Davis provides annual opportunities to present undergraduate research at the Undergraduate Research Conference, as well as a variety of awards, which can be read about at: https://urc.ucdavis.edu/awards/index.html The Undergraduate Research Center also provides services to undergraduates including educational programs, seminars and workshops: https://urc.ucdavis.edu/students/services.html
4th Year Biological Sciences Major
BASC Peer Adviser