Photo of Mark Emerson.
Mark Emerson, a biologist at The City College of New York, studies the gene-regulatory networks that orchestrate retinal development.
Julianna LeMieux

Early career researchers often find themselves wearing two hats: the well-worn one of the mentee and the new, heavy with responsibility one of the mentor. With teaching, writing, and research demanding their time and attention, researchers may often wonder how they can best include undergraduate researchers on projects so that both get the most out of the experience. When Mark Emerson, a biologist at The City College of New York and recipient of a Council on Undergraduate Research Mentor Award, started his lab 11 years ago, he decided right from the start that he would equip young researchers with the skills they need to become great scientists. 

What is a good project for an undergraduate in the lab?

It is important not to give students busy work because they need to feel a sense of ownership. I give each of my students a project based on his or her interests, but there are other considerations as well. I choose a project that is not time sensitive and that uses established techniques in the lab so that I can easily troubleshoot any problems. The goal is for students to slowly acquire independence, so I do not need to micromanage, but ultimately, I need a way to assess the outcome. Also, it is helpful to have shorter experiments in the project that can be done in stages—running gels, purifying fragments, doing minipreps—but that occur within the context of the project. This gives students the opportunity to have project continuity and scheduling flexibility.

Why do you think it is important to train undergraduate researchers?

Training undergraduate researchers is not necessary for many labs, but I think that we have a responsibility to make these opportunities available to students to prepare them to do good science. I find it very rewarding to see what they go on to do in the lab and community. Undergraduates also add a lot of unseen value to the lab. For example, when we dive into the details of a project or a technique, it reveals what we ourselves do not understand.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.