Research is what drives the generation of new knowledge in the biological sciences. Doing research as an undergraduate student is an excellent way to work on the frontier of the scientific endeavor, and will provide solid research experience that can benefit your future career goals. Undergraduate researchers in the Department of Biology can work on cutting edge research problems and present their results in a number of scientific forums including local, national and international meetings. Additionally, each year many undergraduates publish their results in respected journals, including Texas A&M’s Undergraduate Journal of Science, and participate in a Department of Biology Research Competition held each spring semester.
Why participate in undergraduate research?
1. Be the first person to discover something!
2. Reinforce and apply concepts learned in the classroom.
3. Gain technical and critical thinking skills.
4. Work closely with faculty and other researchers. These are the people who can provide career advice that is tailored to you as well as strong letters of recommendation.
How to get involved
There are two main ways to become involved in research. One is to enroll for credit in BIOL 291 (U1 and U2) or BIOL 491 (U3 and U4). The other is to obtain a paid position. Paid positions are less common. Also, Professors may prefer that you first work for credit then later move to a paid position once you have demonstrated your ability.
Either way, you will need to complete online lab safety training before you begin. You can complete this before you’ve decided on a lab, and you will need to complete this before you register for 291 or 491.
Finding a lab:
1. Go to the Department of Biology webpage and click on the Research tab.
2. Choose the Undergraduate research tab and then the Labs looking for Undergraduates (also in menu at left) to obtain a list of faculty interested in taking students. You can also read about individual faculty interests by choosing the Research tab from the Biology homepage. Finally, you can walk around the biology buildings (BSBE, BSBW, Butler, and ILSB) and look at the posters on the walls. Even if a biology faculty member is not on the list of available labs, they may still be taking students.
3. After identifying labs that seem interesting, email the professors to arrange meetings. Tell them who you are, major, year in school, that you are interested in finding a lab, and why you are interested in their research. Also, give them a number of times when you would be available to meet. Give the professor a chance to respond, but after a week of no response it is OK to send a follow-up inquiry. Sometime things get misplaced or forgotten.
4. In the meeting, be prepared to explain again why you want to be involved in research. You should also have an idea of how much time you can commit to research (hours per week). Finally, you should ask about the potential projects, and most importantly, what are the professor’s expectations of you.
5. Take some time to carefully consider your options then let everyone you met with know your decision. It is perfectly OK to let someone know that you have decided to join another lab or that you realize you cannot make the necessary time commitment. A professor may have others that would like to join the lab, so again, please inform everyone.
6. Do not get discouraged if you cannot join a particular lab. There are a many of factors that a professor must consider, including the number of students already in the lab, the types of projects available, your schedule, their schedule… Keep looking.
7. If you are having difficulty finding a lab, contact Dr. Kathryn Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s required on your part?
1. Commitment and dependability. Working in a research lab is not the same as doing experiments in a lab course. The purpose of most lab courses is to teach specific skills. As such, your performance has no impact on others. Although you will gain many skills working in a research lab, your training is not the lab’s goal. In research labs, the objectives are to discover new knowledge. Your results matter to your professor, the lab group, the funding agencies, the larger scientific community, and the world. This doesn’t mean that you won’t ever have problems with an experiment, but it can’t be because you choose not to work or not to care.
2. Critical thinking and attention to details. You will be involved in original research. Therefore, there is no lab manual to follow. The lab you join will have protocols for certain techniques, but exactly what is done will vary with each experiment. You will need to think carefully about what you are doing and justify your decisions.
3. Willingness to ask questions when something doesn’t make sense. You aren’t expected to be an expert, but people are still counting on what you do. If you’re not sure how to do something, ask for help. Furthermore, if something doesn’t make sense, you may have uncovered a flaw in the original plan or hypothesis.
4. Resilience. Scientific research rarely goes exactly as planned. Be prepared to revise, repeat or change directions entirely.