Optimizing lab experiences

I recently participated in an undergraduate research panel discussion for a Biology course. A group of pre-bio majors interested in research asked us questions on our experiences of applying to labs, contacting professors, and project progress. The discussion was interesting and would be beneficial to those planning on trying such lab experience. So, here is my advice on the path to and excitement of undergraduate research:

1. Time commitment: Initially starting in the lab requires lots of time and effort. You learn two broad categories of new ideas – the project concept, and experimental techniques, – which can take weeks or commonly even months to understand comfortably.

2. You will make mistakes! Unlike intro course labs, which are time tested classic experiments and graded of a scale of “0 – perfection”, lab research experiments are not meant to be flawless. Especially in the beginning, when you start learning new techniques and experimental methods, you will make mistakes. Many will be small, errors (that should decline rapidly over time), like miscalculations in newly introduced equations, or incorrectly assembling a gel apparatus; and some will be fundamental errors in understanding the concept. Although some of these mistakes are easily avoidable, they are part of the process of learning and experimentation. This is also an opportunity to learn from your mentor who has experience with the procedures and concepts at a very high level. Over time, you will reduce these small mistakes, and will feel confident using the instruments, conducting procedures, and even troubleshooting problems!

3. Go to lab meeting – Each week, if my schedule permits, I look forward to Tuesdays when we have lab meeting. The meetings are stimulating discussions between grad students, post docs, faculty and undergrads, in an informal and intimate environment. The group meeting allows me to understand different lab-members’ projects, start thinking more deeply about various mechanisms and pathways, and to see effective ways that data is presented.

4. Be friendly – The labs especially at r1 universities like ours are composed of intelligent, talented and accomplished experts in their fields. They have interesting paths, stories, projects, and can give meaningful advice as you start looking at your future. Don’t feel intimidated to make friends with others around your bench, as these grad students, post docs and professors all share a passion for science just like you.

From my lab opportunity, I have gained one of the most fulfilling and stimulating experiences in my undergraduate education. And as I continue working on my project, I hope to keep the above four ideas in mind, just as I hope you do, if starting in a lab.