Navigating undergraduate biomedical research: From textbook to test-tube

By Marya S. Sabir

The benefits of undergraduate research are numerous and far-reaching, and you can enrich your undergraduate journey via research experiences that connect textbook learning to practical, real-world applications. These benefits range from gaining a better understanding of the scientific literature and current advances in your field of interest, to honing marketable aptitudes such as teamwork and interdisciplinary thinking and problem solving. While the process of approaching a faculty mentor, developing a research project, or finding funding can seem daunting, beginning the endeavor with a strategic plan of action may help alleviate potential stress. Understanding the how and why of undergraduate research will allow you to navigate it confidently.

Prior to delving into the specifics of an undergraduate research experience, let’s take a detour to simply answer the question, “Why should I get involved in undergraduate research?” Beyond being a checklist item for graduate/medical school, engagement in research as an undergraduate retains many direct and indirect advantages:

  1. The classroom: Involvement in research helps you understand the rationale behind your course material more effectively, as well as the nuances of research conception and design.
  2. Mentorship: It can be difficult to develop meaningful mentor-mentee relationships with your professors in large classes. Engaging in research with a faculty member provides an ongoing source of guidance to help you with career development. Additionally, due to their significant interaction with you, research mentors are often excellent letter of support/recommendation writers.
  3. Career exploration: Through firsthand exposure, many discover their passion for research, or lack thereof. Both roads are perfectly acceptable – these experiences allow you to make informed decisions regarding graduate versus medical school. If you are considering medical school, evidence-based medical practice is derived from hypothesis-driven research; thus, admissions committees deeply value significant research experiences in applicants.
  4. Professional development: Independence and collaboration can be difficult to teach in the undergraduate curriculum, but are skills that are valued in the workplace. Research can be very interdisciplinary. However, there is a delicate balance between collaboration and understanding where you can contribute independently.

When considering undergraduate research, it is never too early to begin the process. Engaging in multiple, meaningful research experiences will broaden your scope on available avenues. Prior to seeking opportunities, it is imperative to retain a solid foundation in your field of interest e.g., biology for biomedical sciences by enrolling in the requisite courses. Frequently, if research entails bench/wet-lab work, starting as a freshman will allow you to become properly trained on important techniques, and eventually conduct independent research without constant supervision. From the faculty’s standpoint, the trade-off for training and investing in you will be your time-commitment; many faculty expect a student to contribute meaningfully to their research program for at least one year. Additionally, being able to demonstrate (via your CV) that you spent at least a year per lab establishes your own commitment to your future employers and mentors.

Next, let’s explore the question, “How do I get involved and maximize my opportunities in research?”  Below are four aims to bear in mind when beginning the undergraduate research search.

Aim one: Approaching a faculty member/professor
The etiquette for contacting an expert in your field of interest can be intimidating, but it does not need to be. Prior to sending the first email to a professor, spend some time looking over their research and research interests. Their laboratory website and previous publications (preferably within the last five years) are key resources to use. The target of these efforts should to: 1) identify what he/she focuses on and 2) ascertain where your interest lies in their research program. You do not need to understand every element of their previous publications, but rather, develop a better understanding of their research focus as whole. As you read, transcribe a list of questions; professors are often impressed by the prospective researcher’s curiosity and demonstration of initiative.

When structuring the email to a prospective research mentor: 1) address the individual by name e.g., “Dear Dr. Research Mentor”; this instantly sets a more professional tone for the email exchange. 2) Identify yourself by including your year in school, major, if you enrolled/previously enrolled in a class with the professor, or any individuals that referred you to the professor’s research and/or informed you of an opening in the prospective mentor’s lab. 3) Mention your interest in the professor’s work by including some of the key words and questions you wrote during your background research. 4) Without going overboard, identify what sparked your interest in research and the qualities/aptitudes you possess that are conducive to developing into a good researcher (e.g., ability to work in teams, attention to detail, etc.). 5) Request an in-person meeting within two weeks of the date the first email will be sent, if feasible. 6) Attach your academic resume and/or curriculum vitae to be viewed at their discretion. 7) Respectfully thank them for their consideration and state “I look forward to potentially meeting with you to discuss this opportunity.” 8) Include a complimentary closing and your full name (first and last).

Note that generic emails or emails with excessive grammatical errors will often be disregarded. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “could I change the name of the professor in the salutation of my email and just as easily send it to several prospective mentors?” If the answer is “yes,” then you must change it! Personalizing your emails conveys authenticity, and lays the foundation for an in-depth discussion.

Next, finding the right faculty adviser for your research interests may require some time, since professors are often tasked with juggling their teaching and research duties. Sometimes, it is not about your credentials, but whether you are a good fit for their specific laboratory. In these cases, thank the professor for his/her consideration, and ask if they have suggestions about other labs to contact. The path may not always be straight, but maintaining a strong work ethic and enthusiasm will often lead you to the right lab and mentor.

Aim two: Developing a novel research project/continuing an existing project
Beginning a research opportunity on an existing project can be a great way to learn the lab techniques and build your repertoire of competencies. These skills can then be further implemented in independent research once you get a feel for the research field, your professor’s focus, and any areas in which you think you can contribute. Keeping an open dialogue with your mentor/professor is crucial for determining what your research project should be. Additionally, understand that failing is a completely acceptable part of the learning process. Some experiments need to be abandoned in order to progress forward; if you are not prepared to be fail, creativity is out of the question.

Aim three: Finding and securing funding for undergraduate research
Many university institutions offer fellowships to engage students in faculty-led research. These fellowships are often designed to allow students to develop an understanding of the scientific method, while obtaining guidance from experts in the field. Applying to these programs usually requires writing grants, another critical element of research at large. Demonstrating that you can secure funding via a sound scientific proposal is an exceptional skill to have on your CV.

Aim four: Presenting and formalizing the research project
Dissemination of scientific knowledge is a crucial component of research; it fosters scientific dialog and allows for community engagement. Presenting your work at local, regional, or national conferences gives you the opportunity to network and gain valuable feedback from individuals in your specific field. Professional scientific societies, like ASBMB, often provide undergraduate level travel awards, as well as poster competitions/awards. Seeking out these opportunities will allow you to connect with your peers and build your resume. Aside from presenting your work, authoring manuscripts is another important part of research; not only will it bolster your research profile, but also help you gain an understanding of the peer-review process and the rigor required to publish. Look for opportunities to contribute to manuscripts and book chapters as a coauthor or lead author, and do not be afraid to pursue them. This is another instance where open dialogue with your mentor/professor is key.

Understandably, the prospect of getting involved in undergraduate research may initially seem mystifying and daunting. However, armed with the tips listed above, your path to becoming a researcher can be exciting, and paved with personal and professional development.

Acknowledgements:

Dr. Peter W. Jurutka, PhD and Natalie A. Murphy, B.Sc. assisted with revision of the article.

Marya Sabir graduated from Arizona State University in 2015 with a bachelor of science in Biochemistry. She began conducting research in Dr. Peter W. Jurutka’s molecular endocrinology laboratory in May of 2012 as a rising sophomore, and worked in his lab through graduation. During her tenure, she received numerous undergraduate fellowships and scholarships to conduct research in addition to serving as a coauthor on multiple peer-reviewed manuscripts/book chapters. As a member of various professional scientific societies including ASBMB, she earned numerous poster presentation awards and travel awards to attend national conferences.

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