UNDERGRADUATE LAB EXPERIENCE II: Undergraduate Research in Faculty Labs

By Alex Crofts

Read Part I: First Courses Introduce Advanced Techniques

In 2001 Heather Vlamakis coauthored a paper detailing the spread of antibiotic resistance among bacteria in the human body.  It was one of the first publications to show that bacteria can share antibiotic resistance genes in natural settings, and Vlamakis did her work as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois.

Vlamakis’s story is just one example of undergraduates performing groundbreaking research in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Students gain laboratory experience via classes, but a more expansive research experience is gained through individual work done in faculty labs.  MCB professors select students to become productive members of their research teams, and the students can receive course credit for their time.

"It's a very different kind of work," explained Abigail Salyers, professor of microbiology and Vlamakis’s undergraduate research advisor. "We find that students who perhaps didn't even like taking lab courses really like real research."

MCB 290 is a semester long independent study course offered to students researching in faculty labs.  The professor advises students on their research, and provides a letter grade for the student at the end of each semester.

"What you really learn in these undergraduate research experiences is how to think about a scientific problem… and then try to get the answer experimentally. That takes time," Salyers said.

Students enrolled in MCB 290 receive up to five credit hours for their research, and many students work in the same lab for multiple semesters.  Typically a student will receive one semester credit hour for every five hours of weekly work they commit to.

The School of Molecular and Cellular Biology is made up of four different departments and over 70 laboratories.  This variety of faculty and areas of research gives students an opportunity to see what fields of biology they are interested in.

"One of the big advantages of the University of Illinois is that this sort of experience is possible at a very high level.” Salyers said. "The Food and Drug Administration and the USDA are now taking an interest in the work that we've done... and [Vlamakis] was involved in that study and was a coauthor on the paper we published.”

A student can freely contact professors about open research positions in their labs.  There are no prerequisites to join a lab, and professors can choose the type of student they are looking for.  Students can participate in research during any semester they choose, including summer sessions.

“These aren't just little projects someone made up to keep students busy, these are actual scientific projects that one hopes are published in scientific journals,” Salyers noted. "It's quite a novel experience for students."

Actively researching gives students a chance to apply techniques they learned during their course work and be trained in new or different methods.  Instead of following a lab manual or cramming for an exam, the learning process in a researching environment unfolds in a much different way.

“I started doing MCB 290 the summer after my freshman year,” said Palita Sriratana, a senior in MCB. “I had my own project, and I got to see real results… I had to figure things out on my own and I had a lot of hands-on experience,” Sriratana recalled. She became familiar with many techniques before even having taken a formal laboratory course.

Some benefits of research are more subtle.  Laboratory work is not for everyone, and a student can save time and money by evaluating their experience. 

Prachee Crofts and Jen Christoff researched in the same molecular and integrative physiology lab as undergraduates, but chose different paths after their senior year.  Crofts went to graduate school and now has a Ph.D., while Christoff has an M.D. after attending medical school.  

The same research experience lead these two women down different roads, but the work certainly benefited them both.

“Many graduate programs focused on candidates with undergraduate research experience and seemed to use it as an indicator of future success in graduate school,” Crofts said. “My contributions to various projects as an undergraduate eventually led to several publications that gave me a strong advantage over other students.”

Graduate school applicants are not the only ones who benefit from research experience. Medical school hopefuls and job seekers also have an upper hand.

“During the medical school interview process I was asked a question regarding my research at every interview,” said Christoff, who is now a fellow at the University of Chicago Medical Center. 

Salyers agrees medical students benefit from a robust research experience. "They have an advantage in the sense that they have had practical experience with some of the material many students find particularly difficult about molecular biology," she said.

Salyer’s own undergraduate student, Vlamakis, has received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. “I think her experience with this undergraduate research was very helpful not only getting her into graduate school, but when she got into graduate school she had the kind of [scientific] maturity and experience that many students don’t have.” Salyers said.

Undergraduate research experience not only helps students land a job interview or get into graduate school, but helps them determine what path is right for them. “Prior to joining a lab, I planned to go to medical school,” Crofts said.

Now a postdoctoral fellow, Crofts mentored an undergraduate student herself and looks back fondly at the work she did as an undergraduate. “My positive experiences in the laboratory ultimately changed the entire course of my career,” she said.

The benefits of undergraduate research extend beyond the students’ time at the University of Illinois.  “I met many amazing people working in the lab at UIUC, and still keep in touch with a few,” Christoff said. “Everyone was always very encouraging and positive; it was a great environment to learn in.  I also have met many people in the medical field who have also done research at UIUC, some 20-30 years before me, and have been able to make wonderful connections by discussing our experiences.”

Undergraduates interested in research should read How to Find, Join, and Succeed in a Faculty Laboratory.

Read Part I: First Courses Introduce Advanced Techniques

Part I: First Courses Introduce Advanced Techniques, Undergraduate Research Experience.