The Undergraduate Research Experience: Mentorship

Most students enter college uncertain about what they want to do in the future, making the undergraduate years a time ripe with opportunities for self-discovery and development. As a result, both enriching and damaging experiences have a disproportionate impact. Those who are fortunate enough to join a nurturing lab tend to flourish, gaining a much more nuanced view of the scientific process even if it does not lead to a career in research. On the other hand, students who enter into a lab that doesn’t cater to their needs often feel isolated, undervalued, and used, which can sometimes push them away from research for good. For many young science majors, an unfulfilling undergraduate research experience can turn them away from pursuing a career in scientific study. College is often the first time people are exposed to real research but the reality is that many are alienated and drained by their time in lab.

One of my friends – let’s call him Jack – was such a person. An extremely hardworking student with top grades, he was looking into both a career in medicine and research. However, his first experience at the bench felt like a burden: Jack described his time in lab as a series of boring chores with no context and little guidance beyond how to complete the task at hand. Although he later went on to medical school, he abandoned his desire to pursue graduate studies in basic science.

What is the most important aspect of a scientific research experience to an undergraduate? Mentorship.

Most of the problems that undergraduates experience while doing research are tied to a lack of good mentorship. And this issue of mentorship is related to how the PI and lab members perceive undergraduate students. Labs which treat us as mainly a replaceable source of labor and don’t provide adequate guidance are quick to cause disillusionment and discouragement.

Another friend of mine, who is currently a senior, initially worked in a large lab with a very famous PI. However, he – let’s call him Dave – soon came to realize that the environment was just not enjoyable for him as an undergraduate. Because there were so many people working more or less independently, my friend felt like he didn’t get enough guidance from the graduate students and post-docs. In addition to this, he felt isolated from the rest of the lab both socially and scientifically. My friend has long since switched labs and is doing great work in an environment that he loves.

Undergraduate students don’t usually have the same level of independence and confidence that graduate students or post-docs do and because of this we need a little bit of hand holding in the beginning. Even with things that most researchers take for granted like reading scientific literature, performing basic lab procedures like pipetting or performing accurate measurements. Working in a lab can be a daunting experience and without some kind of guide most undergraduates won’t succeed. Having someone around who is willing to teach lab technique and literature reading skills at an undergraduate level is important.

What is the most important characteristic of a good lab mentor? Compassion.

If your mentor truly cares about you and your future, then it is almost inevitable that you will find a home in the lab. Having someone who will support you through times of uncertainty and failure (plenty of which occurs in research) on a personal level is far more important than learning research techniques and reading literature. Science is often seen by the public and even by some researchers as a series of experiments, data collection, and establishment of new knowledge. What gets lost is the fact that science is a human endeavor, an enterprise that involves immersion in a community of people. This is no less true for the undergraduate than for the post-doc or PI.

Toxic relationships between lab members should be an immediate deal-breaker. Before coming to Columbia, I worked under a PI who was relatively absent from the day-to-day operations (as often can be the case). After doing research on a project for the summer, and despite the help of the graduate students in the lab at the time, I did not have any kind of significant results. After working on a paper detailing what I had done with my time in lab, I soon received an email, out of the blue, criticizing not just my lack of character but almost explicitly telling me to give up on science as a career. I persevered, and later joined a more supportive lab. I’m glad for this, but the experience made me recognize the importance of a good mentor: while most PIs don’t usually have such a blatantly hostile attitude, even a less severe interaction can have a crippling effect on the confidence of a young student. It is of the utmost importance to find a lab in which you feel that people are willing to get to know you as a person and support you when you are challenged.

How can schools foster good research experiences in campus labs?  

For the most part, looking for research as an undergraduate student amounts to mass emails, cold calls, and furtive attempts to ask professors after classes or at department events. Additionally, it is almost impossible to ascertain the nurturing quality (with respect to undergrads) of the research labs in question. Almost the only sources of information available are lab websites, which provide no insight into intangible qualities like mentoring and lab culture. Especially at schools which have a prevalent undergraduate research scene this kind of wild-goose chase needs to be replaced with something more systematic and useful.

Columbia has a website (www.culpa.info) that allows students to write reviews about the teaching ability of professors. The site is heavily used by people when registration period rolls around and in my personal experience has been pretty accurate about the quality of instruction I have received. If there were a similar type of resource for people to write about their undergraduate (or graduate) lab experiences it might enable people to avoid labs which don’t cater to their needs and instead look for ones that do. These types of ‘review’ websites are inherently susceptible to bias due to people who have had an extraordinary or extraordinarily awful experience. However, they still provide a good baseline for evaluating your options, even if they have to be taken with a grain of salt. Research is just as important a part of our education as a lecture course – and just like a good teacher, a good mentor can make all the difference.

Photo by Antonella Beccaria [Creative Commons], via Flickr

Sean Lim is a senior at Columbia University majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior. He studies the effect of early-life stress on behavior, gene expression, and epigenetics  in mice and plans to pursue a MD-PhD focusing on neural circuits and how they give rise to behavior.        

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3 Responses to The Undergraduate Research Experience: Mentorship

  1. Brandy A. Brown says:

    Hi Sean,
    I’m an Assistant Professor and Program Director of Organizational Leadership and I’m working on building opportunities for my students to do research with me – but since I have yet to do this with any of them , I can’t ask them how they would prefer I go about things.

    So I thought I would ask you since I found and enjoyed this post so much. Here are my top 4 burning questions: When you were looking for opportunities were you expecting to be paid in return? Or was the resume experience and likely recommendations etc. enough? What do you wish you could tell someone like me before you got started working with them? How could a professor have gotten the word out to you that they were doing research so you didn’t have to slog through finding an opportunity?

    If you answer even 1, I’d really appreciate it!

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    • Sean Lim says:

      When I was first looking for a research position I was not too concerned about getting paid. The biggest attraction for me was getting to participate directly in the research process and contribute to something larger than myself (i.e. the research enterprise, furthering human knowledge). I think that many undergrads have a similar view and are simply looking to gain research experience as well as recommendations and mentoring. That said, summer research is often only possible for undergrads if there is some kind of fellowship or payment so that they can pay for room and board.

      Before beginning any kind of research experience I would want to determine whether the lab culture is accepting of undergraduates and provides opportunities for them to have more independence and greater responsibility. Additionally, I think that personal mentorship whether through graduate students/post docs or directly from the PI is also and essential component. Another related aspect is whether undergraduates have the potential to publish papers or be included on lab publications.

      I think that one of the best ways to advertise that you are interested in taking undergraduates on for research positions is to make an announcement during any kind of class you teach or undergraduate lectures that you give. Additionally, a functional and easily navigated website definitely helps especially if you can construct some kind of succinct and compelling description of your research as well as the opportunities that you plan to offer undergraduates.

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