Oct 16, 2007 commentary
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While in the past I’ve provided some tips for getting into a good lab as an undergraduate, and ways to save time once you’re working at the bench, I haven’t yet described the best things to focus on during those few years that you have before heading on to graduate school or your professional career. Here’s five tips for taking full advantage of the hours spent in the lab as an undergraduate:
1. Learn good lab techniques from postdoctoral fellows and lab managers. It’s important to use time in the lab to get exposure to performing many different assays so that you’ll have a leg up when it comes time to using them for your own research. It gets easier to pick up new assays once you have good technique down, so that later you can get a protocol from literature and be able to perform it as described without supervision. While it’s easy for your supervisor in the lab to teach you one thing and then have you do that for 3-4 years, don’t let them off the hook that easily. Ask to learn new techniques or watch them do something else, and let them know that you’d like to get exposed to more than just one or two assays.
2. Not all advice is good advice. As an undergraduate, you might assume that everyone around you in the lab (more experienced undergraduates, postdocs, technicians, research associates, PI, etc.) has all the right answers. Well, guess what? They don’t. They may act like they do, and they may confidently answer your questions and requests for advice, but most will be faking it at least some of the time. Consider the source of the information. If you’re asking a graduate student or PhD research associate for advice on going to graduate school, do you think you’ll be getting an unbiased answer? On the other hand, if you’re asking for advice on an assay from a research associate with 20 years of experience, that’s probably a safe bet. Double check things and consider your sources before making final decisions.
3. Take advantage of opportunities to make poster presentations. Hopefully, you’ll have the opportunity to get involved directly in a research project and will be able to present your work at a conference or poster competition as an undergraduate. These are great opportunities to meet and talk with other scientists outside of your lab, make new contacts, and get experienced advice on your poster, presentation skills, and ideas for future experiments.
4. Your classes always come before the research. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of working in the lab as a researcher and making steady progress with your experiments, but the coursework has to come first. The classes provide the framework for everything that you’ll do now and in your future research career, so skipping classes and focusing more time and energy in the lab doesn’t make a lot of sense. Focus on studying your coursework and stick to a strict schedule for time spent working in the lab.
5. Be involved in as many areas as possible in the lab. When someone in the lab asks for a volunteer undergraduate to help them with an experiment, do it! This is a great way to learn new techniques as well as learn conceptually why the experiment is being performed. This is where the lab experience will really pay off: you may get exposed to a concept and technique months or years before you come across it duirng your coursework, and then you’ll be that much ahead of the game when it comes to exams. And the concept will probably stick better after you’ve done the assay yourself, rather then trying to memorize and understand how a technique works from a lecture and textbook.
Hopefully these tips will help you make the most of your time as an undergraduate researcher.