Opinion: Improving the Undergraduate Research Experience

Mentoring is critical for students just beginning to learn the ropes of biomedical research.

Nov 15, 2016
Lynn Yang

WIKIMEDIA, NHGRIDuring my first years of undergraduate study, I perceived biomedical research as a rather nebulous concept, involving white lab coats, surly postdocs, and long hours tending to lab equipment owned by a principal investigator (PI) whom I was unlikely to ever meet.

I found this sentiment shared amongst my fellow science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students. Most of us had—at best—limited exposure to biomedical research in high school. We might have visited a nearby university lab, for example, observing the research process as spectators.

When we arrived at college, the prospect of contributing to research seemed daunting. And our lack of confidence persisted when senior lab members were too busy with their own projects to provide proper fundamental instruction for the benchwork we were assigned, or to explain the big picture behind the lab’s many projects. Internet searches and watercooler talk about the research process were somewhat educational, but far from the learning experience many of us had expected.

Knowing that there was more to experience than acting as free, largely untrained labor, but not trusting I had yet built sufficient academic background to pursue an undergraduate research position, I initially held off on joining a lab.

However, at the urging of a friend who believed her lab an exception to the norm, I joined her group, and it has indeed shown I can be a very real part of the scientific community and have the agency to make legitimate contributions.

Here, I provide some suggestions on how academic labs can improve the research experience for undergraduates.

A research lab seeking undergraduate research assistants should aim to teach students about as much of the academic scientific process as possible, instead of considering them simply as data-collection helpers and dishwashers. Ideally, the lab’s PI should provide some mentorship for the student. After all, the vision of the lab is in the hands of the PI, so who better to guide individuals seeking to learn about the inner-workings of their research?

Because scientific progress is achieved by those seeking answers, spurred by curiosity of the unknown, mentors should encourage undergraduate research trainees to ask questions.

Mentors should also direct students to relevant pieces of scientific literature, from which the student can develop an underlying framework and a launching point for the student’s own literature searches. From there, with the support of the mentor and fellow lab members, the student should be encouraged to pursue an independent project.

When it comes time to share results, the student will seek mentors’ advice on how to communicate the findings. Having published peer-reviewed papers, presented posters, and given talks, mentors are well suited to instruct students on foundational methods for productive scientific discourse.

I am fortunate to have a dedicated PI who is wholly invested in expanding my understanding of biomedical research. Through presentations in weekly meetings, I am also exposed to the work of my fellow lab members, and introduced to the methods of scientific collaboration.  

Experience-appropriate responsibilities, encouragement to ask questions and pursue independent research, guidance on how to present one’s work: these are all areas in which the traditional undergraduate research experience is often lacking. Each of these requires extensive work, time, and trust on the part of mentors, but they can mean the difference between curious students who are dissuaded from pursuing research and those inspired to someday become PIs themselves.

One may offer the rebuttal that the experiences of graduate-level students are more accurately reflected in my description of the ideal undergraduate research experience. But where will the passion and keen pursuit of science from the graduate students arise from if their idea of science is quashed early on in their academic path? Through my experiences in a highly integrated and vibrant lab, I have come to understand the importance of curiosity- and independence-sparking undergraduate research experiences as a key factor in the progression of the next generation of scientists.    

Lynn Yang is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in cognitive science and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, studying concepts related to biomineralization, biomechanics, and mechanobiology in the University of California, San Francisco lab of Sunita Ho.