Finding a lab to do an undergraduate research project
One of the main requirements for undergraduate majors in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and is to perform a research project. Although there are over 240 faculty that work in the biological sciences on the Busch and Cook campuses, many of these professors can, at most, take only one or two undergraduate students for research projects. In addition, students from other departments, such as Genetics, Cell Biology & Neurobiology, Chemistry, and Biology, are also looking for research opportunities during the summer and next year. It is therefore advisable that you do not wait until the end of the spring semester to start your search for a summer research. We also suggest that you talk to several professors so that you can get a feel for the different labs and styles of research.
An excellent place to start your search is to browse through the research descriptions of each professor in the Faculty Listing of the Rutgers Graduate Programs in the Molecular BioSciences. This listing provides a brief description of the research interests of each faculty in the program, along with their addresses and a list of some of their current papers. Research descriptions of the faculty can also be found on the Rutgers home pages for each of the departments or graduate programs.
If you find a description in the catalog of a professor whose laboratory you might be interested in, read some of their recent research papers. This will not only provide you with information on what the lab is doing, but it will also provide background for discussions with the professor. This will also demonstrate to the professor that you are interested in his/her research and will indicate that you are motivated.
When setting up an appointment with a professor keep in mind the following points:
- Indicate why you are specifically interested in their lab as opposed to any other lab at Rutgers.
- Provide some background for yourself about what you have done and what you are interested in doing. (Introduction to Research 694:214, 215, or 315, Honors courses, High School research, etc)
When meeting with a professor keep in mind the following points:
- Discuss what is going on in the lab and what projects are available.
- Is the project feasible in the time allowed? Will there be results within the time frame that you are in the lab or is this a long term project in which the answer may not be determined within your time in the lab?
- Be realistic in terms of the project and the accomplishments – If an experiment is extremely important for a grant, a paper, tenure etc. then it is likely that a full time, experienced person in the lab will be carrying it out. Until an undergraduate student has proven themselves, they usually are put on projects that are not the main focus of the lab or that serve to help some other member of the lab.
- Find out who will be directly training and supervising you. Is it the professor, graduate student, post-doc, or will you be on your own?
- It should be noted that most professors are usually very busy teaching, giving seminars, writing grants and papers, as well as serving on committees, etc. Therefore, some no longer do lab work. Working with a graduate student or post-doc may provide significantly more time for interaction or guidance than with a professor. These lab personnel usually know where everything is and the current protocols, instead of the way they were done 10-20 years ago when the professor was at the bench.
- Talk with members of the lab. What are they doing? How do they like working there? Sometimes, what actually happens in the lab and how people interact with each other are very different from the impressions that you got from the professor. Will this lab be a place that you will enjoy being in over the next year?
Keep in mind that the professor will be providing ideas, time, space, and money
- Ideas: The professor will discuss the research that is going on in their laboratory and may provide a few suggestions as to projects that would be feasible for a new researcher and that would benefit both the student and the lab. In assigning a project, it usually means that other members of the lab will not be doing the exact same thing. Therefore the professor is depending on you to carry out the project.
- Time: Initially, you will require a lot of supervision to learn the system and master the techniques. Often things may not work right away, and therefore time must be spent by the professor, post-doc, graduate student, or technician in training you and troubleshooting the experiments. Although this effort by other members of the lab is helpful training for you, it is also taking away time from their own experiments.
- Space: Space is often at a premium in many labs. In some big labs, people only have a few feet of bench space or work in shifts. Therefore providing a bench to an undergraduate may in turn mean that the lab is not able to provide space to a more experienced or long term researcher such as a graduate student or post-doc.
- Money: In an average molecular biology lab, each researcher (graduate student, post-doc, or technician) will use over $5,000 a year in supplies and reagents. In labs that use expensive reagents such as cell culture media or large quantities of enzymes, this number could easily be over $10,000 a year. Therefore, even working part time in the lab on your research project will easily cost the lab over $2,000 in reagents and supplies during the year.
Therefore in taking an undergraduate student into their lab, the professor is making a large commitment of resources to provide the necessary ideas, time, space, and reagents to carry out your research. The professor is therefore expecting a serious commitment from you to work hard and make an effort at getting the project to succeed. Working sporadically for a few hours a week, or not showing up for long periods of time, will not only be unrewarding for you, but will frustrate the professor and other members of the lab and may even impact on their research.