BY KATIE LUQUIRE – Undergraduate research is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in college. Through conducting a research project, you are able expand learning beyond the limits of the classroom and visualize concepts that you would otherwise only read about in a textbook. Undergraduate research has been a major part of my college career and has allowed me to form relationships with peers and my mentor, gain patient interaction, and develop skills in critical thinking. As a pre-health student, developing skills and learning to interact with people in a professional setting is critical for my future as a healthcare professional. I highly recommend joining a research lab, not only for how it will look on your resume or the requirement it fulfills but for developing skills that you will undoubtedly use in your career. However, attempting to join a research lab can be an intimidating and confusing process. Here are some tips for navigating the process of joining your first research lab:
Figure out what kind of research you want to do.
According to the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Learning, the University of Georgia is classified as a Doctoral University, which is the distinction for the highest degree of research activity in a university setting. Therefore, the university puts a lot of emphasis on research and as a result, there are many opportunities for undergraduate research. Research is conducted in all fields, from economics to molecular biology. There are also different methods of conducting research. For example, I do research in the Department of Kinesiology, so much of my research works with taking noninvasive measurements on human subjects. However, many science labs work at the molecular level. For example, the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (CCRC) focuses on the carbohydrate science of plants, microbes and animals. Look at what opportunities are available to you and determine what you want to learn more about. The Integrated Life Sciences (ILS) website also has a list of research areas for science students if you are not sure what area you want to conduct research in.
Do your research.
There are many opportunities to find undergraduate research opportunities at UGA. CURO, the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, is a great place to start. The program supports students by helping to select opportunities, choosing a mentor, and publishing their work. The CURO website even has a list of available research opportunities, complete with the principal investigator’s contact information. Additionally, another way to find a mentor is to ask a favorite professor what research they have going on and if there are any opportunities for you. There are many professors on campus who highly support undergraduate research and would be happy to help you.
Reach out to a few professors.
The best way to ask about joining a lab is to contact the professor of the lab, also known as the principal investigator (PI), directly. If you have a class with the professor, try to speak with them after class or during office hours. Otherwise, email is the best method to communicate with them. This can be challenging, and you may even need to contact the professor several times before they respond. Some professors wait for the student to initiate a conversation multiple times to gauge interest before responding. They will often want to meet with you in person in order to get to know you, which is a great opportunity for you to get a feel for their mentoring style as well. If you are able to, try to meet with the PI’s graduate students during your meeting with the PI. They oversee different projects and you will likely be interacting with them on a daily basis if you join the lab. However, just because you meet with a PI and his graduate students does not mean you are tied down to that lab. It may be beneficial for you to visit a few labs before you make your final decision.
Weigh your options.
A few essential points to consider when selecting a research lab include the type of research they do, the work environment, and level of commitment. Before going into any research experience it is important to know the type of research you will be conducting and what you will be evaluating. Additionally, you will be spending a fair amount of time in your research lab, so make sure you are in an environment in which you are able to thrive. Ask the professor if you are able to visit the lab during your in-person meeting and try to get a feel for how the lab is run. Also, other undergraduate students in the lab are a great resource for you through this process because they have probably been in the lab for a while and can tell you what their experiences have been like.
Another factor in choosing a research lab is the time commitment. As a pre-health student, you take classes of rigor that often require significant amounts of studying. Therefore, know what amount of time you can spend on research and ask your potential mentor if that amount is sufficient. Some labs require more of a time commitment than others, so it is better to have that conversation with your mentor before you decide to join the lab than afterwards.
Choose your lab.
Once you have made your decision, contact the professor and let them know that you would like to join the lab. Ideally, try to make this decision within a week or two of meeting the professor so they do not assume you are not interested. The first semester of lab will likely be a training semester where you observe measurements taken in the lab so that you can collect quality data when you conduct your own research in the future. While research can be a great experience when it works out, keep in mind that if you are not happy with your work or if your work is not what you thought it would be, you are not locked into that lab. Even if you are doing the research for course credit you can finish that semester and if you want to, look for a new lab for the next semester.
The process of finding a lab can be challenging and daunting. However, once you find a lab and conduct research that has meaning to you, it will all be worth it. Many research mentors support and even encourage undergraduate research so they are willing to help you achieve your goals. All it takes is enthusiasm for learning and a little bit of perseverance.