Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Training students’

Why I Love Undergraduate Research

IMG_0104I train a lot of undergraduate scientists in my lab. I have already discussed all the managerial methods I devised to train them including the bootcamp, state of the lab (orientation),  lab rules, and writing/presentations. But, I am not sure I have mentioned why is enjoy working with undergrads so much. So, here is a list of the top-ten reasons why I love working with undergraduates (in no particular order):

1. They are funny. Obviously not all people are funny, but every now and then I get a really extroverted and funny person in the lab. Maybe because the undergraduate lifetime in the lab is shorter (0.5 – 3 years) than a graduate student (4-5 years) or postdoc (3 years), so there are more of them in general coming through the lab, but there have been a higher frequency of funny undergrads. I realize that some people don’t like when students have a sense of humor, but I do. Mostly the students are self-depricating, and are not making fun of other people. Sometimes they rib the other students, but they are often too shy or scared to make fun of anyone much more senior to them in the lab hierarchy. Of course, there are times when the humor should be turned off, and they are able to understand that and act professional when needed. But, I love that they are funny.

2. They are brave. Approaching a professor about doing research in his/her lab – especially a professor you have never had for class – can be very daunting, yet undergraduates do it frequently. In my lab, most undergraduate researchers work on independent projects without the direct supervision of a postdoc or grad student. In a sense, they do science without a wire, but there is always a net. They often come into the lab not knowing what to expect or what they will do. But, they overcome these anxious feelings because they are wonderfully brave.

3. They are shy. Despite their bravery, many undergraduates are introverts or just shy. This is quite an endearing quality, especially when they put it aside to present their work and truly get into talking about the science they did. Being shy is not the same thing as being disengaged. They overcome shyness for science, even though, they are shy.

4. They are honest. Since they don’t usually know much about the science, undergraduates present what they think honestly. Sometimes knowing too much can be a hazard to discovering the real answer. They present what they see, even if they are shy or even anxious about it. I often give undergraduates high-risk problems that we have no idea what will happen. These problems are great because they sometimes result in very cool, unexpected results. If they had some idea that what they were seeing wasn’t right, they might be persuaded to alter their presentation of their results, but their naiveté helps them stay honest.

5. They are resourceful. Since I give my students new problems with unknown answers and no direct mentor in the lab, this allows them to own their projects. The goal is to teach them that they can learn these things on their own, and many times, they realize that they can use anything and anyone to help them. Through the process of doing independent scientific research, they become resourceful.

6. They are driven.  It is so easy for students to not do undergraduate research. At UState, we have no requirement for research in any major. Driven students seek out research opportunities and can get an immense amount of work done. The student who seeks out research is often very driven.

7. They are young. I love that the undergraduates are young. I love working with young people. It keeps you young. I don’t want to get mentally old. I want to learn new things, and so do they. Sometimes being young means they can be immature, but many of my students are very mature – it’s all apart of them also being driven. Mostly, they are fun and open because they are young.

8. They are smart. Undergraduates can be very smart. What does it mean to be smart? It can manifest in so many different ways: having a good memory, ability to represent complex information clearly, ability to explain things verbally, ability to make connections from old content/knowledge to new content/knowledge, ability to do math in their head… These are all good attributes for someone doing scientific research.  Do not confuse a lack of knowledge of content with smartness and ability to learn. Undergraduates don’t know everything or anything, but that is not the only marker of smarts; undergraduates are smart.

9. They are pliable. One goal of doing undergraduate research is to learn. It isn’t just about learning concepts or skills of the research, but learning many other types of professional skills such as writing, presentation, communication, and working in a group. College, in general, is a time we use to also learn who we are and who we want to be. Luckily, unlike us old-timer professors, undergraduates can still alter their personality. You can help them to identify what type of person they are and what type they might want to be. You can help them to become that new person inside and out, and this is only possible because undergraduates are still pliable.

10. They are open to fun. The main reason why I have so many undergraduates is because they are fun and open to doing crazy/fun things. When I say, “Let’s make a lab music video,” they say, “Yay! What song?” When I say, “Let’s try this experiment,” they say, “OK. How should I do it?” When I say, “Let’s have a party,” they say, “Woot! When?” I want my lab to be a fun place to be and a place people want to come to work. Undergraduate researchers are essential to that formula because they are open to fun.

So, what about you? What is your favorite reason for doing research with undergraduates? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I write a post, push the +Follow button.

Organizing Your Group: Training Students One at a Time is a Waste of Time

1114_universe-crop-500x416Earlier, I had some posts on organizing your research group (here and here) and mentoring students (here and here). I have mentioned that you can train students in a bootcamp setting.  Here, I will describe the general method of a bootcamp and the benefits of group training. I am happy to give our examples of specific topics I cover in my bootcamp, but you can probably think of your own for your own research group.

What is the Bootcamp? Each year, the same time of year that is convenient, I run a  5-day bootcamp to train students in all the activities of my lab (I do experiments, in case you couldn’t tell). The camp is set for 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday for one week. The number of contact hours in the week-long course in the same as those for a normal course for an entire semester. Thus, the students get a concentrated dose of lab training. We start with how to keep a lab notebook and go through all the important experimental techniques needed to work in the lab.

Some days end early, but others go late. No day is really 9am – 5pm. This is to teach them the lesson that science does not proceed 9-5. It is a strong lesson. The training includes basic bench work needed for the lab, performing certain routine tasks specific to our lab, and performing new experiments and data analysis.

Benefits to Students:  I train students in cohorts in the bootcamp – at least 3-6 at a time. This gives them a group of students who all went through the camp at the same time. I make it fun for them. I put them in groups. They work together in small groups to answer questions during morning “lectures”  and to perform experiments in hands-on afternoon “experiments.” I make t-shirts for each team. They typically have a theme – such as Scooby Doo – and each group is a different character and color. The over-sized t-shirts act as lab coats for the week.

After the students take the bootcamp, they are considered trained and ready to start their own research projects. They take off with a lot of confidence knowing how to work in the lab, who the people are who can help them, and having a set of students to turn to for simple questions (their cohort). The next year, students who are still around and took the camp already are welcome to join again, or serve as TAs to train the next cohort.

Benefits to Me: Saving time, saving money, saving effort. As the title says, training students one-at-a-time is a huge waste of time. By training many students at once, I save a lot of time. I found, when I first started my lab, that only 1 in 4 or 5 students would pan-out. Unfortunately, you never know who those students will be before you begin training. By training all the students at the same time, I make sure to train the good with the bad. I save money because I can properly and personally train the students, and don’t have to leave the training to others, who might miss things or miscommunicate. Sometimes the TAs say incorrect things, but I try to be around to correct them immediately, which teaches both the bootcampers and the TAs. I save money by not paying bad students who don’t want to stay and by having more-respectful students. Although, at first, only about 1 in 5 students stayed and was productive, I have found the bootcamp and the cohort to be a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining students in the lab. Students who weren’t sure about research in the lab, decided to stay after having a lot of fun in the bootcamp. Thus, I am actually able to recruit more and better students.

So, what about you? Are you still training students one-at-a-time? Is it hit-or-miss? Do you have additional activities or improvements to be added to the bootcamp idea? If so, post or comment!

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