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Undergraduate Research Experience

How to find, join, and succeed in a faculty laboratory

Researching can be the most rewarding and valuable experience of your undergraduate career. Finding a lab to research in requires an extensive search, however, and a little bit of luck.

The outline below will guide you from start to finish, including advice from Professor of Microbiology Abigail Salyers.

How to find the right lab

First, you need to know that every lab is the right lab. The techniques you learn in one lab can be applied to dozens of others.

“If you were interested in neurobiology, [but you] can get into a microbiology laboratory, by all means do it,” Salyers says. “You’re going to learn the same types of thinking and the same types of technology”.

Anything you gain from a lab will be valuable, no matter the area of research. Basic modern lab techniques like PCR can be learned and applied in almost any lab.

Make a list

Go through the faculty lab pages to find research that interests you. Don’t be picky and include as many labs as you can. Look for labs in all four departments, and don’t limit yourself just to areas you excel at in your classes.

Only selecting one or two labs you’re interested in is a “big mistake,” Salyers says. “You won’t get in anywhere,” unless you broaden your search.

You can even receive MCB 290 credit for doing research in schools outside of MCB, like animal science, physics, or chemistry. There are so many different applications for molecular and cellular biology techniques that looking outside of MCB labs may give you a unique opportunity to set yourself apart from your peers.

Be willing to commit

Professors expect students to work at least one full semester, and you should estimate at least 10-15 hours of lab work a week. Those students who can commit to more than one semester, say, spring semester and through the summer, have a better chance of getting into a lab Salyers says. Professors want to know that the effort they put into training you will pay off.

Consider staying on campus over the summer to research. You can focus on your research and spend more time in the lab because you’re not balancing your typical semester's course work. Although, taking a summer course to get ahead while you’re here is not a bad idea either.

Keep an open mind

Right now you may be interested in researching antibiotic resistance, but applying only to labs in this area seriously limits your chances of finding a position.

Apply to labs inside and outside of your primary interests, and look forward to learning new disciplines.

Working in an alternative lab not only may spark your interest in different fields, but can make you a more qualified candidate for the lab on the top of your list.

Continue to How to Contact a Lab


Undergraduate Lab Experience (feature article)

Part I: First Courses Introduce Advanced Techniques
Part II: Undergradaute Experience in Faculty Labs

Video Interviews with Undergraduate Researchers: