Undergrad Herding

Sep 11 2012 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

There's a great post up at ProfSnarky's, giving advice to undergrads who have just gotten a job with a prof. It's full of some really good advice, and if you're an undergrad who wants to do research, I definitely suggest you check it out!

But I also thought I would add some of my own thoughts here. Because if you work for someone in biomed at a big uni, the odds are, you're not working for that big Prof. Nope, you work for that big Prof in name only and see them once or twice a semester. In reality? You work for the postdocs and grad students in the lab. In the day to day, the undergrads in my lab work for me.


(Don't worry, I don't bite. I do, however have a large cat and a desire for world domination.)

And this is important for me and them. Undergrad mentoring helps me develop my mentoring and training skills. It helps me get stuff done (well, once they're trained, anyhow). And it gives undergrads someone to go to, not a far off BigWig Boss, but someone in the lab every day with them, to help them learn and answer their questions. It means I can read their drafts and help them prepare their presentations before they go in front of the big guy. I can help them learn to troubleshoot, and I can teach them how to search the lit and get what they need out of it. Some undergrads might be offended that they may not see the big Prof often, but on a daily basis, you'd rather have me, I promise. :)

Of course, this means I have to prepare the undergrads for the fate that awaits them. I have to show them how the lab is run and outline the expectations they need to meet.

To do this, I put together a written document. It's just called "what I expect from my students", and contains a list of written expectations. I'm not going to put the whole thing here, but instead just a list of the most important things:

1. Be on time. As Snarkyprof said: Show the f*** up. I ask my students for their class schedule and ways to contact them. And you, in turn, need to LET ME KNOW when you can't make it. And that doesn't mean letting me know as you waltz out the door. Missing lab times can mess up weeks of prep in this field, and I NEED YOU. Be reliable. Prioritize. Plan ahead. You've got a job in a lab now, and that means you can't drop everything and hole up to study for your final.

2. Do your homework.
Daily life in science doesn't come with clear-cut "assignments". Instead it comes with experiments to lay out, background literature to read, data to collect and analyze. There are often very few "due dates", but it is your job to keep on top of this. Again, Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

3. Research is about scientific answers, not a grade on your transcript. A research project in a real working lab is not just your learning experience. It is for scientific knowledge, and for the careers of the people who work on it. It can often involve expensive materials and even your own sets of rodents. Take it seriously.

4. Write things down. You will be getting so much new information at first it will feel like drinking out of a fire hose. Here is a good rule of thumb: if I am explaining something, you should be writing it down. Also, if something is unclear to you, interrupt and ask for clarification. You can never ask too many questions about something. As a part of this, keep a responsible lab notebook, which I will give you at the start of your work. Remember your data can be important to the entire laboratory, so you need to have it in a form that makes it easy to share.

5. Tell me when you mess up. Research is uncharted territory, and screwing up sometimes comes with that territory. It’s part of the job, and I do it all the time. You may very well destroy or drop or burn down something worth thousands of dollars, and that’s OK (though don’t do it on purpose). It’s usually nothing to be ashamed of, but make sure that people know what happened so that the mistake can be corrected and the experiment put back on course.

6. Work toward independence.
When you first join a lab, you will start by observing people at the bench, then doing things under supervision, then working on your own. As you do this, work on thinking for yourself. Understand each part of the process, ask questions when you don't. This will help you troubleshoot when things go wrong.

7. Be curious! There are no dumb questions, but choosing not to ask questions and stumbling blindly through a project usually leads to dumb answers.

8. Be neat. We all make messes when we do science, and that's fine. But the laboratory is a space we all have to share, and a space that we all have to keep clean so we can all get our work done. Clean up after yourselves, IMMEDIATELY after the experiment.

9. Love the science! These are a lot of expectations, but can you meet them, and enjoy your time in the lab. This is your time to learn new things and discover something entirely new. At the end of the day, we all do science because we love it, and we want you to, too.

As part of my undergrad mentoring, I also ask my students to take a paper from the lab (which I assign based on their interests), and present it to me and the other postdocs and grad students immediately involved with their project, in a small, informal meeting (with cookies). I ask them to use the CREATE method to help them fully understand the journal article. This helps them understand how to get what they need from the scientific lit, and how to do it quickly and efficiently.

But of course, I'm always looking for ways to improve my mentoring. Do you all have any thoughts on this? What do you do to herd your undergrads? Any specific guidelines? Sci wants to KNOW!

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