Finding a research lab was definitely one of the most stressful experiences that I have had. When I first started college, I (like so many others) called myself a ‘premed’ and delved right into exploring medical research. Although I am no longer premed, I am still certainly interested in research and am still working in the same lab! I have always been interested in medicine and participating in research was one of the reasons why I ultimately chose to attend Stanford.
I definitely suggest joining a research lab during your undergrad, even if you are unsure about what you are majoring in or what you want to do. A great aspect of research that I ‘m drawn to is its interdisciplinary nature. There are so many different people coming from different backgrounds and skills, so you are definitely not limited by your major!
At such a large research university, the opportunities were literally endless and what made it worse was that I just had too many interests (ultimately, I ended up doing research in a lab that is completely different from my major!). Like a lot of my peers, I started college without a solid idea of what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. I had very limited exposure to research in high school and didn’t even know where to start contacting people to inquire about becoming a student research assistant. I only had three criteria regarding the lab I wanted to work in:
1) my lab project would clearly address an existing medically relevant need
2) the lab members had to be nice
3) that I would absolutely not just be a lab monkey slaving all day cleaning test tubes.
And with those three checkpoints, I went out to embark on my quest to find the “perfect” lab. Needless to say, I would go through multiple labs that failed at least one of the criteria before I found the right one.
From there, take the chance to acquaint yourself with their research; go to the lab’s webpage and download a couple of their recently published papers. I always start by reading the abstract of a couple articles to get an idea of the research scope. Familiarize yourself with the ongoing projects in the lab to get an idea of where you can fit in and the people who you will be working with. This will serve to not only impress your professor that you have read some of his/her articles, but also it will serve as a great conversation starter. Engage in their research and ask them questions about their projects. The more questions you ask, the more you get an idea of what the lab culture is like. Most times you can even tell by talking to the professor alone how good of a mentor he/she will be. If they seemed rushed and give you brief answers to your questions, this is a red flag that your professor will likely be distant from your lab projects and will not be there to give you advice.
Most importantly, be straight-forward about your goals, expectations, and any other concerns that you may have at the first meeting. Let them know your motivations behind wanting to participate in research, whether it is because it is a requirement for your major, or because you want a chance to decide whether or not research is something you will want to pursue later in life. Be honest about your past experiences; if you are coming in with no experience, tell them that! I was initially very concerned that my lack of experience would affect my chances of getting into a lab, but all of the PIs I have talked to have been very welcoming and understanding. You are an undergrad after all and are there to learn! This is also the time to bring up any concerns about compensation: will you be receiving credit, monetary compensation, or volunteering? Usually during the school year, labs offer either monetary compensation for students who qualify for work study or academic credit. I have received both. However, if you are also interested in working at the lab during the summer, then let the PI know that so that you can work out some sort of compensation, since work study funds and academic credit aren’t given during the summer. Usually, there are grants and scholarships given at universities for research over the summer, so I suggest checking with your school. This way, not only will your PI know about your commitment to their research, but you can also lock down a summer position.
One of the challenges I faced was the question of joining the lab of a well-known professor in a field with a large lab, or a smaller lab with a newer professor who is less established, but in whose lab I would probably get to play a bigger role in. My answer to this challenge was simply to go join the lab with the better mentorship. Luckily, I was able to find very good mentors in the larger lab that I ended up in, but I have certainly had friends who also joined a larger lab and did far less lab work than me because they lacked the mentorship.
So hooray! Say that you have found a PI who is willing to take you in. What do you do from there? Firstly, always contact your future mentor ahead of time and ask them to email some relevant journal papers for you to read. This will show them that you are not only enthusiastic about working with them, but also that you are making an effort to do your best to familiarize yourself with the project. Secondly, once you actually start physically working in the lab, the three most important things to do are to 1) listen to your mentor, 2) ask questions, 3) make mistakes! This is the only way you will learn and your mentor will understand. I was definitely very intimidated at first and didn’t want to ask questions, which only resulted in a heap of confusion, so remember that mentor-mentee communication is key. From there, learning to perform various techniques and going through the research method becomes very natural, and you will get better over time, I promise. Oh and don’t forget to document everything. Where you put a particular reagent, how long you incubated a sample and at what temperature, what dilution you used, which aliquot goes into which well. If anything, this documentation will save you and your mentor tons of time when debugging a mistake.
Lastly, know when your time has come to leave. This could be because you ended up not liking your mentor or your project, or both. This could be because you took way too heavy of a course load and are in over your head. Whatever the reason, be sure to communicate this to your mentor and your PI and thank them for the opportunity. Don’t worry too much—another opportunity will find its way. Don’t stay in a lab that you don’t want to be in when you have the opportunity to thrive somewhere else. And what about publishing? The only thing I will say about that is that you are very fortunate if you get a journal article out of your research, but in the end, your PI needs the paper far more than you do at this stage in life. You are first and foremost a student. A student at college and a student of the scientific method. Learning and doing your best is the most anyone can ask of you.