The Road the Research #1: So you want to be a scientist?

Hello friends! I am starting a short series called, The Road the Research, which will be six bi-weekly articles about my experiences in undergraduate research and advice to other budding scientific researchers. This is a bit different than what I usually write about, but I am writing the series for an on campus organization, and I thought I’d share it with all of my readers!

Why you should pursue scientific research: The scientific theory is as old as humanity itself, this drive humans have to ask questions about the world around us is something that not only unifies us culturally, but through space and time. Navajo, who peered at a sky full of stars, made up theories that the stars were left over quartz from the carving of the moon. When the Black Death ravaged Europe its sufferers postulated the disease was spread from direct eye contact. Though these explanations may seem silly today, these ancient scientific researchers were attempting to answer questions about the natural world with their limited tools and observations. Scientific research is the most terrifying, exhilarating, and natural thing a human being can experience, and it can give you the power to change the world.

When should I start?: The short answer is: as soon as possible. I began to volunteer in a laboratory in the summer of 2013 before I even started at the university. This is an extreme example, but starting sooner will give you more time to learn essential skills, establish relationships, and help you identify who you are as a scientist. Because I started early I have been able to work in three very different laboratories, been granted six undergraduate research grants, and have firmly established my career goals and research interests. Starting in a lab early is also essential as it allows you to ‘try out’ laboratories. Every laboratory group has their own culture, expectations, and ways of doing science, you sometimes need to try out many before finding the right fit. Also consider that many PI’s expect you to work in the laboratory as a volunteer for a certain amount of time   before allowing you to develop your own projects or agreeing to be a mentor on a grant 

How do I get involved?: No one expects you to know what your specific research interests are, or your long term career goals. However, you should begin to think about what scientific topics excite you. A really great way to start this search is to go to a department website and look through the research interests of professors at CU Boulder. Remember, you don’t have to only look in the department of your major, in fact, being in a lab outside of your major can expand your resources and networking opportunities. Let’s take the EBIO department as an example, you can find the department page by simply googling ‘CU Boulder EBIO department’. Once you are on the home page, many departments have a tab called ‘people’, there you will find all of the professors and graduate students in the department with a quick blurb about their research. Scan through these descriptions until something catches your eye, or do a CTRL+F search for a specific topic you’re interested in, such as ‘disease’. Make sure to write down the names of any professors that you have an interest in working with and make sure you have a list of at least three. All the departmental websites are different, but I’ve circled what tabs you will want to click on to find out more information about research.

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Who do I contact?: You now have a list of potential laboratories, what’s the next step? Contacting them! Many professors make jokes about the types of emails they get from undergraduates, but some students really do start emails with, ‘Yo professor’. Not a good idea. You have to make your email seem professional, and really stand out, but you also have to make it short and sweet (we all know professors don’t have the longest attention spans). So if you aren’t graced with natural emailing skills just simply follow these guidelines:

  • In the subject line write something like ‘Undergraduate Student interested in the ____ Laboratory’
    1. Putting their laboratory name in the subject will show them that this is an email tailored just for them, not a mass email you’ve sent to everyone in the department (it never hurts to make them feel special).
  • Start the email with ‘Dr./Ms./Mr. ____,
    1. If they have a PhD make sure to call them Dr., it’s considered bad form if you don’t (they did work for 4-6 years to get their doctorate after all).
    2. If they have a S degree call them Mr. or Ms., never assume they are married and call them Mrs.
  • Begin by introducing yourself!
    1. Your name, your major, your year in school.
  • State your previous research/academic experience.
    1. It’s okay if you don’t have fancy previous research experience. Even if it’s AP Chemistry, or volunteering at Audubon, it can help show the professor your background and knowledge in science.
    2. Attach a resume if you have it!
  • Explain briefly why you’re interested in their research.
    1. If you know anyone in their laboratory you could state this here as well.
  • Thank them for their time and let them know you’re available for a meeting.

I was actually able to find the email I sent to Dr. Pieter Johnson back in 2013 when I wanted to start working, here it is:

Dr. Johnson,

Hello, my name is Abby Kimball and I am entering as a sophomore in the fall at CU Boulder, I am majoring in EBIO and I am in the honors program. In high school I was an International Baccalaureate student: I took HL Biology (equivalent to EBIO 1210, 1220, 1230, and 1240) and excelled in honors chemistry. I am very interested in disease and conservation and your research seems to align with my interests. I was wondering if you are recruiting new student volunteers/researchers. Let me know if you have any additional questions, I am always available to meet!

Thank you!

What you will be doing: When I first started in Dr. Pieter Johnson’s laboratory I was a research assistant on two REU NSF funded projects and preformed daily husbandry on experimental animals. One project I worked on was comparing temperature survivability of various species of trematodes. This required me to learn microscopy skills in order to examine various “activity levels” of cercariae as the temperature became more extreme over a 24 hour period. The other project I assisted with was examining the effects of interspecific competition on the growth and reproduction of a variety of snail hosts infected with parasites. During this time I was trained by more senior student researchers on how to preform animal husbandry and I became certified with IACUC at the University. Working hard in the laboratory for the summer allowed me to gain the background knowledge that I needed to apply for a BURST research grant in the fall.

Laboratory Lingo:

  • PI’s: ‘Principal Investigator’, the professor that runs the research lab.
  • EBIO: The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • REU: A grant for undergraduate students (https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/)
  • NSF: The National Science Foundation
  • Animal Husbandry: The daily tasks associated with experimental animals, cleaning cages, feeding, etc.
  • IACUC: Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (http://www.colorado.edu/vcr/iacuc)

Check out my next blog entry where I’ll be discussing my experience getting my first research grant and how to develop a research question!

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