Being an Undergraduate Researcher

One of the quintessential experiences of college is participating in undergraduate research. I’ve been doing research for the past two years in the same lab, and can say, it has been my favorite experience since coming to William & Mary. Through it, I’ve been able to learn about what interests me most, Biology, in a way that my coursework never could. That being said, there are a few things that are unique about it being an undergraduate experience, instead of a graduate research program, or a program at a much larger institution which I have enjoyed this summer.

1. Working directly with a professor

One drastic difference between a smaller institution and a larger is the student:faculty ratio. While it can often be more difficult to find funding coming from a smaller university, I can count on the professor I work with to be in lab if I need help. Over the past two years, I have been taught personally how to a variety of assays and techniques, all of which are useful and I find myself teaching newer members. In addition, I get to meet directly with my professor every week, and he can keep track pretty easily of my progress.

2. Friendly peer-peer environment

All of the people in the lab are undergraduates of some level. We all know we have thing to learn from one another, and can empathize when something goes wrong. “Your PCR didn’t work? Try this revision I made in my last set of reactions. Oh, by the way, how did your Organic Chemistry exam go?” Conversely, the environment encourages each other to push each other. When in such close proximity with lab mates for 10 weeks, it can be frustrating waiting on results and challenging to keep steady progress with your peers.

3. Application of my research to my coursework

I’m a scientist! I can apply the principles in my research to ecology, to molecular cellular biology and so forth.

4. Application of my coursework to my research

I’m a science major! I can apply chemistry to figuring out what concentrations of reagents I need, and I can apply physics to understanding why certain methods are used. Why radiation rather than convection? Why use an 8000 monomer polymer to trap viruses?

5. Lab outings

Being in a lab is more than just work. One of the most unique parts of being an undergraduate in a science research lab is that the lab periodically goes on trips and arranges for “lab events” (watching movies on Fridays or going to get burgers on Mondays). While certainly not essential to the experience, these events certainly make what could otherwise be a stressful and tedious experience into one that allows us to rewind a recharge. Once in a corporate setting, or in a high level lab, I wouldn’t expect these to be common occurrences. I certainly am going to miss these once I graduate.

6. Contributing in the way YOU want to

In an institution with so many professors, each adept at their field, there’s no pressure to join any certain lab, or to publish in a specific field. In addition, the direction you want to take and the questions you want to be answered are acknowledged. If you really want to answer a question, such as “How long does it take for viruses to decay?” you can most certainly have it answered, or work towards it yourself. Anything that you’re motivated enough to work towards is publishable if not already known.