Research

How to Get Involved in Research Projects as an Undergraduate

By David Targan, Associate Dean for Science Programs in the College

 

Welcome to the world of research at Brown! Some of the recommendations below reflect my experience in the sciences, but many if not most of these ideas also apply to the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Here are some general principles to keep in mind: persistence pays!

 

If you persist, you will get that research job. The strategies I describe below are steps that persistent students have taken. No single strategy always works – expect some rejections, but take them in stride. Realize that some researchers have already made commitments to other undergraduates, some are planning to be on sabbatical or be away for the summer, and others are not yet sure what their summer research plans will call for. Don't take any negative response as a rejection. Just keep on using the strategies described here, or create new ones for yourself. Be creative and proactive


The advice given here is far from comprehensive, so use your ingenuity to generate your own ideas. Don't assume that a professor will come to you (although for the lucky few, this does happen!) You must go to them. The more proactive and creative you are, the easier it is to convince professors that you will also be an enthusiastic participant in their research projects. Research is often an open-ended questioning and problem-solving process, not unlike finding a research project in the first place. You don't have to know everything about a subject when you make contact with a professor – that's why you're a student. Show that you are trying, that you have gone "beyond the call" to find out about the research of a professor. Start early.

 

Why not start your quest during the first or second week of school? While everyone else is trying to figure out the best eating spots, you'll be the only first-year year student in your unit wandering into the offices of prospective mentors. Even if it's too late for you to take that approach, starting early is still important. For some research opportunities, such as Undergraduate Teaching & Research Assistantships (UTRA) and some federally funded opportunities, the deadlines give you precious little time to learn about a subject, so the sooner you embark on your search for research, the better. In many disciplines, there is no reason why you can't start research, even if it is not fully collaborative, before you have taken advanced coursework in that area. In fact, younger students offer faculty researchers the potential advantage of working with them several years in a row, which to them is a savings in training time. YOU can do research.

 

Many students don't believe enough in themselves to think they would be capable researchers in a lab. You could be one of those students. The fact is, research is a great equalizer. We've seen students with transcripts that were far from stellar succeed famously at research, perhaps because the lab environment is totally different from that of the classroom. The result is an improved self-esteem, which is then frequently followed by improved academic success. Whether you are doing "not so well" or extremely well academically (according to your definition), if you have doubts about your own research abilities, a trip to the Dean's Office can help you to gain some perspective. "Just Do It."

 

While doubts and reservations are understandable, it's best to either work to eliminate those doubts, or "act as if" you have the potential that we know you have, and "just do it." Just ask your professor about research opportunities in his or her area of research. Just make that phone call or send that email to start your search. Take some of the steps described above. Just Do It!So, equipped with the advice of being persistent, creative, proactive, being the early bird, putting aside doubts you may have, and to "just do it", let's look at specific ways to learn about research opportunities.

 

Some Specific Ways to Learn about Research Opportunities at Brown

Talk to your professors!

This may seem obvious, but to most students it's not something that occurs to them in a class. (The advice here applies also to guest lecturers who can open doors to entirely new opportunities.) Professors love talking about their research, even if for only a few minutes after class or during office hours or by appointment. If you find a topic covered in your class that intrigues you, ask your professor if that's an area that she or he is interested in. If not, it's at least a starting point for a conversation about research opportunities, and you may get some leads to others who are doing research in related areas. Take advantage of those open hours- many professors report that the only time they see students for open hours is right before exams.

"After taking several courses in painting with Wendy Edwards, our idea for an UTRA developed naturally out of our student-teacher relationshiop. I recommend that students talk to professors in their field that excite them, and begin by simply talking to them, asking questions, and showing interest." Claire Baker

 

Surf the web

Check departmental sites. They will often highlight research areas; these represent research "groups" within (or often across) departments. Click on those sites. Or, go from professor to professor under "faculty" links on a departmental web site. You can find out about research interests of faculty by reading their bios, descriptions of their research, or publications. Also, if something interests you, try searching for key words on the Brown web site. Check the News Bureau for the latest information about cutting edge research at Brown. If you're interested in biology or biomedical research, consult this site belonging to Dean Marjorie Thompson. And of course, the site you're visiting now contains a wealth of information about research at Brown: a good place to start is the Directory of Research and Researchers at Brown.

"I browsed through researcher's websites on Brown's network, found research I was interested in, and contacted the professor. I met with her and then planned a summer research project based on my interests." UTRA student

Once you have found somebody who is doing research that is of interest to you, send them an email. Be sure to include information about yourself (past research and class experiences) and why their particular project is of great interest to you. If you are using this "cold call" method, be sure to email enough professors that the statistics of a larger sample size works in your favor- in some departments only three or four emails of this type are needed- for popular labs you may need to send more.

"I did some research on the Brown website and gathered approximately 30 names of faculty with research interests or courses offered in the area I was interested in; then I sent out email explaining who I was and what I was looking for. About half of the recipients replied, and about half of the repliers offered to work with me!" Jenna Kanter, UTRA summer 04

Make yourself visible

Attend colloquia sponsored by departments that interest you. When you do go, make sure you are seen – don't sit in the back. Join the departmental undergraduate group (DUG) and/or WiSE affinity group. They provide good opportunities to network, to become part of the fabric of the department, and to meet professors. Attend department functions like journal clubs and holiday parties. A number of students report meeting mentors at departmental poster sessions. (Did you notice all of those posters on the walls? Read them and find out what's going on in the labs on that floor.) The more visible you are, the more part of the department you are, the more you will be seen as a potential partner in a future research project. There is no reason that you can't start this "visibility strategy" early. In fact, if a DUG doesn't exist, work with the Office of the Dean of the College and the department, and start one! If it does, take a leadership role – you will meet members of the department that way.

 

Talk to advisors

This means your first or second year advisor, or your concentration advisor. They may have an opening in their lab, or they may know somebody who does. Your peer advisors can help as well, as can your friends. Deans and Randall counselors are also good sources of information. Become involved in a lab that you are interested in.

 

This involvement can range from attending regular lab meetings to volunteering (if pay is not available) during the academic year. There are no guarantees that research funding will be available but many people who obtain UTRAs and other research support started out in this way.

"I was too late to apply for an UTRA so I worked on the department's payroll. The following year I continued to work with him and got an UTRA for the summer between my junior and senior year." Tyler Wilson

 

Don't hesitate to explore research opportunities in other locales 

Brown has close connections to both the Marine Biological Lab and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, both at Woods Hole in nearby Cape Cod. Research opportunities are available at these two major research centers- contact me (Dean Targan) at the Office of Undergraduate Research for details. For off-site research, it is important to check first with your concentration advisor about this, since some programs are better than others, and you will want to see how your plans for this research might fit into your overall undergraduate experience, including your future research as an undergraduate. The National Science Foundation sponsors programs called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) that can be concentrated in a particular research facility to become REU Sites. For a complete listing of these opportunities, check: http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.cfm There are a variety of other external opportunities. The only drawback with these research experiences is that unless the researcher at the off-site facility has a close connection to a Brown faculty member, you may have a hard time turning your research into a senior thesis. On the other hand, not all research of this type needs to turn into a senior thesis, and this research experience may very well serve as "training" for research back on campus. Also, students working as interns doing research in industry, or doing research at another research university, often have opportunities waiting for them upon graduation.