Welcome to Undergrad in the Lab!

Undergraduate research can be incredibly rewarding, but where do you start and how do you succeed? Navigating this unfamiliar territory is not easy. Here you will find advice on how to find a research position, and how to get the most out of your experience.

Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.

— Albert Szent-Györgi (1893-1986) U. S. biochemist.

—from the Lab Manager's bench

I originally wrote this post on Quora to answer the question, "How do I get involved in undergraduate research while still in community college and working on my general education?" This version is slightly different from the one I posted on Quora.

You might feel that your options are limited but you probably have more than you think.


Is an Independent Project Required for Co-authorship?

—from the Lab Manager's bench and the PI's desk

The inquires we receive about earning a co-authorship from undergrads in the lab typically consist of a summary of their project and a request to evaluate if it's "independent enough."

In many cases, the undergraduate is wondering if they have produced enough independent work to write a thesis (most have by our account), but others wish to know if they will be included as co-author on a journal article or elsewhere.


Growing Pains and Stepping Stones

—from the Lab Manager's bench

After you reach certain benchmarks in the lab, your research supervisor will transition from the role of supervisor to that of a research mentor.

Accompanying this change in roles will be the growing responsibility to do tasks formerly completed by your research supervisor. This will be unsettling at first--especially when you quickly realize that your success is now in your hands. Long ago, one of my undergrads described this path to self-reliance as "Growing Pains" and it immediately became part of our lab’s lingo.

Label Bottle Tops

At the start of a wetlab research experience, there is often more information to learn than is possible to remember. Even those who take great notes inevitably lose some details. One of the most common mistakes a new researcher makes is storing a chemical or reagent incorrectly.

Don't Guess and Go

In a lab, many reagents look similar either in color or formula and substituting one for another can cause substantial frustration for both you and your mentor. Back in the day, one of my student's experiment failed several times before I realized they were substituting EDTA for EGTA. That one letter made all the difference...

Whether you're new to the lab or in a hurry, double check your notes and the bottle label to make sure you have the correct one.

Using Equipment for the First Time? Ask Before Starting.

—from the Lab Manager's bench

Self-directed learning is a reasonable expectation for all lab students, and should become part of your core as you develop into an independent researcher. But if you’re an undergraduate researcher, before working with a piece of equipment that is new or unfamiliar to you, always first consult with an experienced labmate—even if they are not your official research supervisor.