I know from personal experience how much an undergraduate research experience can shape your future.
At the end of my junior year in undergrad at Swarthmore College, I was struggling with the idea of what to do after college and how my major (physics, at the time) would help me achieve that. That summer, I had the amazing opportunity to work in a neurobiology lab at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN)- and it felt like coming home. I knew, after that summer, what I wanted to do: grad school in neurobiology. I even managed to finagle a last-minute major change (from physics to biophysics) to facilitate my training for and ability to get into appropriate graduate programs.
I gained as much from mentorship as I did from research exposure, that summer. I can’t even imagine where I might have ended up if not for the opportunity and guidance afforded to me by Marc Schmidt’s lab at UPENN. I owe them so much, and I hold my interactions with them as a model for how I want to treat my own undergraduate students here at MIT.
At MIT, we (graduate students and post-docs) work with undergraduate students as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Typically referred to as UROPs, these undergraduates are eligible to earn credit or funding for their work in various labs, in addition to any authorships they might receive. Thus, there’s a high supply of enthusiastic undergrads vying for available positions.
So how do you know if you should take on a UROP? What kind of project is appropriate? What is expected of you as a mentor? It is, in my opinion, perhaps too easy to jump into having a UROP without really considering these questions. After all, you have the potential to create literally life-altering experiences for MIT undergraduates. What an awesome responsibility! Here are a few suggestions, gleaned both from my days as an undergraduate researcher and from my experiences on the other side of that relationship as a UROP advisor.
1. Don’t just go looking for a minion.
Many times, people go looking for UROPs because they have repetitive or boring tasks they need completed. Although it’s not necessarily bad for a UROP’s project to include a repetitive task, I think it’s a profound mistake to take on a UROP solely for that purpose.
Even more so than graduate students, UROPs are still learning what it means to do science. When you take them on as mentees, you are implicitly taking on the role of advisor. Don’t forget that what a UROP takes away from their experience in your lab can and likely will color their opinions about that field for years to come.
If you are planning to take on a UROP, consider it an opportunity (and your responsibility) to grow as a teacher. It’s not just about what the UROP can do for you- it’s equally about what you as a mentor can do for them.
2. Engage your UROP in the entire scientific process
Let’s say you do have a ‘boring’ task that you want a UROP to complete. After all, that happens in science! It’s still possible to make that kind of research a fulfilling experience for your UROP. The first and most important thing to do is to put their work in context. Sit down with them and explain the hypothesis, the path to publication, the broader implications of the work, etc. Help them see the meaning of their work!
One thing I like to do is to offer each UROP the opportunity to at least observe the other experiments that are related to their project. If they are running endless animal behavior experiments, then I’ll have them watch the imaging and data analysis that follows the behavior. Sometimes, I’ll teach a UROP more complicated techniques on the side — it might not make sense for them to do those experiments on a daily basis, but the educational and experiential value of that exposure can be huge.
3. Be clear about expectations
The best way for a UROP to become disappointed with their research experience is if they are given false expectations. If their research is going to consist largely of some repetitive tasks, be upfront about that! You can of course describe the more exciting aspects of what they will be doing or how it relates to the research at large — but what they will be doing on a day-to-day basis is equally important.
4. Provide opportunities to present and take ownership
You learn something best when you have to teach it to someone else. You can describe the project to your UROP many times, but they’ll understand it best when they have to put it in their own words.
Furthermore, having to describe their research helps give a UROP a sense of ownership of their project. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an essential component of being a successful scientist is the ability to communicate one’s ideas. If you don’t give students the opportunity to talk about their research, you are neglecting an important aspect of their scientific growth.
There are many ways to get UROPs used to the concept of explaining their ideas. Often it is easiest to start by taking the time to sit down with them. Ask them to describe the project to you in their own words.
However, nothing quite beats explaining one’s ideas to other people. In my lab, it is common practice for UROPs to participate in group meetings, often giving a small portion of the relevant group meeting presentation themselves. Many find being put on the spot in that way scary or intimidating, but the value of such exposure is tremendous. I have seen UROPs exhibit profound skill development in the areas of public speaking and scientific explanation as a result of such presentations.
Of course, that’s just one example. If your lab group is not particularly open to having UROPs present, then it might be worthwhile to seek out other opportunities. There are, for example, poster sessions for undergrads in many departments.
5. Strive for UROP retention
There is nothing quite like seeing a UROP grow as a scientist over the course of several semesters — or even years. After all, science doesn’t happen overnight. Although there may be departments in which projects are contained within a single semester, I rather think that the majority of projects span at least a few semesters.
Just think of the benefits of having a student for that entire length of time! From a practical perspective, you don’t have a retrain a new UROP every semester — and returning UROPs become more competent and confident in their assigned tasks the longer they stay with a lab. From the their point of view, they are able to see a project through multiple phases — hopefully through to publication. They get to see everything they’ve been working on come together into a cohesive story! And, of course, there are the tangible benefits of authorship (which becomes likely the longer they work on a project) and recommendation letters (which are more powerful the longer they stay in a lab).
It is, of course, not always possible to convince a UROP to stay. Sometimes it might not even be a good idea; for example, if they aren’t interested, if there’s a personality conflict, or if they are unwilling or unable to engage with the project. But by and large UROPs are wonderful additions to a project, and we want them to stay!
My advice here is simple: tell each UROP the impact they’ve had on the project. How well have they done? How much do you enjoy working with them? Be clear about what they have to gain from staying with a lab and ask what you can do to make their experience better in the future.
I watched my first long-term UROP graduate this past spring, and it was one of my proudest moments. She had come so far since I first met her, years ago. I can remember the early days of her training- like when I had to show her how to pick up an animal, or when I found out she’d been too intimidated to tell me I’d been mispronouncing her name for months. There have been mistakes on both sides, of course, as I learned more about being a supervisor and she grew as a scientist. But overall the experience has been wonderful for us both. She’s grown so much. I watched her transition: from a hesitant underclassman to a confident senior defending a thesis she completed under my supervision, from an uncertain student I had trouble talking to to someone I consider a close friend. It was incredibly hard to let her go and watch her continue her journey- to medical school and beyond!
I have a new UROP now, and though she hasn’t quite gotten the knack for picking up animals, I can tell we’re going to be great friends before her journey here is through!