Undergraduate Research 101 | By Sydney Rudko

Beginning on August 27, The Wanderer Online has unveiled numerous personal stories, top 10 lists, sports team previews and more, all of which contribute to our Orientation 2012 Series. In this piece, Sydney Rudko discusses undergraduate research, outlining how she started up in undergraduate research and what you can do to get involved in the future. 

WHY YOU SHOULD CONSIDER RESEARCH

I would argue that the vast majority of science students in their first year are thinking about applying to medicine. A noble endeavor, indeed, but the reality is the vast majority will not make it to medicine, for various reasons. Personally, I was never interested, and am still not interested, in pursuing a career in medicine. Blood, guts and poop? No thanks. But there are still a lot of career options for students who love science but aren’t interested in the bodily fluids. A great way to cultivate your interests in science and find out about a host of science-related careers is by nabbing an undergraduate research position. Even if you find that lab-bench science isn’t for you, it’s an excellent way to make connections, talk to graduate students, post-docs and professors about career opportunities and learn about new fields! Furthermore, I think the learning experience is invaluable to anyone who is truly passionate about any kind of science.

HOW I GOT MY JOB

I found out about undergraduate research from my chemistry professor in my first year. During office hours one day she asked me about my career ambitions and I expressed an interest in research. She told me about various research awards that undergraduates could apply for to do research over the summer. I opted out for my first year; these positions are hard to come by that early in your undergraduate career (however, not impossible). Come September of my second year I was ready and willing to seek out a research position. I made a list of labs I was interested in and started sending out emails requesting meetings. I received two interviews, and was offered both positions. After completing a summer of research in one of the labs, I decided to move to another lab that I felt suited my interests more!

FINDING A POSITION

There are a lot of places on campus you can look for research positions. Some department websites have postings. However, I think to really set yourself apart from the rest of the students vying for a research position, it’s best to contact a professor directly. You can approach a professor after class, or investigate them on the web and then set up an appointment, or just drop by! If there is one thing most professors love, it’s talking about their research, and from my experience, most don’t mind if you just pop in. If there is something you’re really interested in learning, mention it! This is your summer!

Visit multiple professors, perhaps even in various departments.  It’s important that you pick a lab within a department that best suits your needs. As an undergraduate, I would be less concerned with what particular department or faculty you find a position in, and more concerned with the quality of the lab itself. Each lab is different, and it’s important to find a place that suits your needs and personality.

It’s best to start this process early. I’d suggest contacting professors in November for positions the following summer. This is because deadlines for funding scholarships are often due in January and February and its nice to have an early start.

GETTING SCHOLARSHIPS

Once you’ve found a professor, they will help you apply for various scholarships. Some common ones are NSERC and AIHS, but you will be surprised by how much funding there is for undergraduate research! Deciding factors in achieving an award depend on that particular award itself; however, generally speaking, the more experience, and the better your grades, the greater your chances are at receiving a scholarship. Third and fourth year students also have a greater advantage, but first and second years fear not! Ask your professor when you apply if your position is contingent upon receiving an award. A lot of professors will agree to pay you regardless of whether you receive an award or not. For instance, in my second year I received a partial award through the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, and my professor paid the rest of my salary.

THINGS TO ASK IN THE INTERVIEW

-What are the expectations in your lab?
Getting an idea of what is expected of you is always important.

-Will I be the only summer student?
It’s nice to have a summer student buddy in the lab!

-How many hours are expected?

This varies between labs. Some professors require full 8-hour days, but some are more lenient. Ask if your professor prefers you to be there from say, 9-5, or if this is flexible. This is also important if you have a part time job in the evenings or on the weekends… remember, lab positions don’t pay particularly well in some departments so this may be a factor in choosing a lab.

-Is my position contingent upon receiving a summer student award?
As I stated above, a lot of professors will pay you even if you don’t receive an award.

-Will I have my own project, or will I be aiding a graduate student?
Either way, as an undergraduate you should be working closely with someone, or perhaps a few lab members.

-Does your department have any particular programs for summer students to take part in?
The department of MMI has a fantastic summer student program that culminates in a poster competition in mid-August!

-Does your lab often have lab events?
This can gauge the lab environment.

-Are you personally in the lab often?
I like that my professor is often around in the lab, but some professors have other responsibilities that keep them away. Ask yourself what kind of lab environment you want to work in!

-Ask if you can meet with the graduate student or post doc you will be working with in the lab.
It’s important to make sure you get along with the lab members.

-What kind of safety training is provided?
This is particularly important if you will be handling potentially dangerous organisms or chemicals.

Be honest about your knowledge and skill level, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! It can be scary asking for a job early in your undergraduate, but trust me, the more keen you are, the more likely you are at landing the lab job of your dreams!

Sydney is a 4th year Honours Immunology and Infection student with a passion for science and writing. Follow her on twitter @SPResistant

Do you have any more questions about undergraduate research? If so, write to us in the form below! We can help connect you with the Undergraduate Research Initiative, as well.

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  • firs year student

    Thanks for this article! Lots of good info.